By Robert St. John
BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, ITALY— Is it possible that one can fall in love with a town? I love my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi— deeply— and can’t see myself living anywhere else. Ever. But I am a sixth-generation citizen in that part of the world. My roots are deep there. My history is long there. My businesses are there. Most of my family and friends are there. I didn’t fall in love with it. I’ve always loved it. To fall in love with a place one wants to travel to, time and time again, is rare to my thinking.
OK, I get it. People vacation on the beach in the Florida Panhandle, fall in love with it, buy a condo, and return often. The same goes with a mountain home or lake house. But those seem like vacation homes to me. Places to get away, feel free, relax, decompress, and be isolated for a while.
I also understand that people go to places such as Paris and are enchanted by the beauty, history, charm, and romantic nature of those cities. Who wouldn’t? But that is romance. I have been romanced by dozens of cities and places.
I’m talking about a place— especially a non-descript place— that seemingly has no desire to attract outside visitors, one that exists fully unto itself, has no CVB or tourism agency promoting its attributes, and one in which most of the citizens are surprised that others even want to visit. That is rare.
I have found such a place.
A Tuscan local once said, “Tavarnelle is the ugliest town in Tuscany.”
Another local replied, “No. Poggibonsi is the ugliest town in Tuscany. Tavarnelle is the second ugliest.”
Not in my book.
Beauty comes in many forms. There is not a lot about Barberino-Tavarnelle that is architecturally significant, especially on the Tavarnelle side. But I love this place. The longer I am here the more I see the beauty below the surface.
Tavarnelle and Barberino were separate entities until a few years ago when the city governments combined. Barberino has a very small, but charming, walled, Medieval city center, but Tavarnelle is a place that most would pass through and not stop 99 times out of 100. They would do so to their detriment.
Tavarnelle was substantially bombed during World War II. Most of the old buildings are gone and post-1948 buildings have taken their place. But the Via Roma, the ancient road that passes through the middle of town, is the same road Michelangelo travelled when heading to Rome. The road is so old that when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem, people were also walking on the Via Roma.
There is so much history here.
I love the food, especially in the places the locals seem to think are no big deal. They, like us, are guilty of not being able to see the forest for the trees, whether they be olive trees, parasol pines, or cypress. When one is exposed to local establishments every day, one tends to take them for granted. I am only here a few months out of the year. Things always seem new to me. And for the past six years or so I’ve been hosting groups of Americans here and introducing them to this place and its people.
There is a lot to love here.
I love that dogs can— and do—enter restaurants and lie beside their owners as they eat. I love seeing all of the old men playing some type of card game I have never understood in the front room at Paolo’s. They’re the same men who were there in 2011 when I first came to this area.
Paolo’s place seems to be the center of town. It’s the Italian embodiment of what I have preached for decades— it’s the local cafes and bars that tell us the most about a town. It’s where the town gathers to share a meal and share their lives. This is not EPCOT Italy. This is the real thing.
I love the ladies who work in the bakery I visit every morning. I am obviously fond of the pastries they serve, but I also appreciate their enthusiastic energy and the welcoming way they greet me when I walk through the door every day. Italian bakeries have such good energy in the morning. Most people don’t even sit. It’s typically a five-minute visit for a quick espresso and a hand-held pastry.
The green-grocer on the town square and I still can’t verbally communicate after a decade of doing business together (that’s on me). But we still engage in trade somehow, and he hand picks the best fruits and vegetables around. I love that.
I love that the olive oil on the tables of most restaurants comes from olive trees within a half mile of the restaurant (many times on site), and the wine and cheese typically come from farms and vineyards just a few miles away. These people invented “local.”
I constantly see this town through new eyes. We can only have one “first time.” The first time I saw Michelangelo’s David I was emotionally moved. But that was my one “first time.” It’s not that I can’t appreciate— and be awed by— that amazing work of art on subsequent visits, but there’s only one first time. By hosting people over here and turning them on to all the locals-only restaurants and locations I’ve discovered I get to live through their “first time.”
Processes and traditions that seemed strange, outdated, and complicated in my early visits to Barberino-Tavarnelle make sense now, and I navigate the system fairly well. My first grocery store visit back in 2011 was a nightmare at every turn. I didn’t know I was supposed to put on gloves before handling the produce (at the green-grocer, no one touches the fruit or vegetable but the store employees), and I didn’t know I was supposed to weigh and price-label the produce before bringing it to the check-out line. That first visit was on a busy Saturday night as everyone was stocking up because the store was closed the following day. I was truly a stranger in a strange land. These days I shop like a pro.
I don’t feel strange any longer. People know me here. People seem to like me, my family, and our guests. One of the proudest moments I’ve experienced as a tour host is after one of my groups left several weeks ago. We received a lot of compliments from restaurateurs, hotels, and guides about how kind, friendly, fun, and respectful the Americans were, and what a joy it was to have them.
I still speak little to no Italian. What little Italian I do speak is rarely ever pronounced correctly, as I mangle every other word. That’s not a good thing, and I should probably make more of an effort to learn the language. But I have a hard time remembering what I said five minutes ago, I feel like 61 may be too late to learn. I’m afraid that, until I am over here and forced to communicate to survive, I am not going to be able to learn Italian, easily. I can speak menu Italian, but I have so many locals surrounding me daily who speak English that I am spoiled and probably just downright lazy about it if I am to be honest.
I will never leave my home in Hattiesburg, but I’ll keep working over here several months a year as long as Americans want to come over and visit my favorite little Tuscan town, meet my favorite people, eat and drink the wonderful things this land— and those hands— provide, and fall in love, too.
Annagloria’s Gorganzola Grapes
My friend Annagloria served these as a first course at a dinner party in her house one evening. I thought they were perfect.
40-50 each Red grapes
½ lb. Gorgonzola dolce
½ lb. Cream cheese, softened
½ lb. Toasted pistachios
Wash the grapes and dry thoroughly with a kitchen towel. Set aside.
Combine the gorgonzola and cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on high speed until completely homogenous, scraping down the sides as needed.
Grind the pistachios in a food processor, transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Coat the dry grapes completely in the cheese mixture and then roll in the crushed pistachios to coat evenly. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours in an airtight container before serving.
Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author