Penne alla Bettola, Florence

By Robert St. John

BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, TUSCANY— Yesterday I was having a conversation with one of my travel guests who was talking about being homesick when she was sent to camp as an eight-year-old. I tried to remember a time, over the past 61 years, when I might have been homesick. I have a vague memory of visiting some cousins in the Washington D.C. area, when I was six or seven, and not wanting to spend the night there. It had nothing to do with them. They are wonderful people, it’s just that I was missing my mom and brother who were staying across town with my aunt and uncle.

I went to summer camp several years and don’t remember ever being homesick. I always looked at it as a new adventure. I’m sure my mother saw it as the chance to get a few weeks of peace and silence at home.

In 2011, when I was on a six-month trek across Europe with my wife and two kids, I was never homesick because the things that mattered to me most were with me.

These days I get businesssick, more accurately— restaurantsick. When I am gone from my homebase for any length of time I miss our restaurants. A few years ago, I started spending three months a year hosting tours through Europe. I love doing it— and judging by the amount of people who join me to travel repeatedly (I currently have a lady who is with me for her sixth trip)— my guests love it, too. I have no plans to stop doing it any time soon, but after six or seven weeks over here, I grow restaurantsick.

It’s not that I’m sick of restaurants, to the contrary. I am in restaurants three times a day while traveling. I love restaurants, whether they belong to me, or someone else. It’s that I begin to miss mine, deeply.

I have a lot of job titles, surely “dad” is the most important. But when we peel back all the layers, I am a restaurateur. I have no hobbies, at least in the typical sense. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, I don’t play golf. I love movies, music, and football. But I’m not sure those are actual hobbies. I love to travel, but that gets handled by hosting tours a quarter of the year. My hobbies are restaurants, restaurants, and restaurants.

When I’m home I am either in one of my restaurants, in my restaurant office, at home working on restaurant stuff, researching things for the restaurants, or on my laptop developing new concepts for restaurants. My mom often asks, “When are you going to retire?”

The answer is always the same, “Never.” When she presses, I tell her, “Why would I retire? I love what I do. The restaurant business is my ‘fun.’ I am blessed that my hobby is also my career.” I hope to draw my last breath— in my sleep sleep— somewhere in my late nineties after a busy opening shift at a restaurant we’ve just opened. That would be a perfect world.

I left the United States back in early October. It was only two weeks after we opened our new Italian restaurant in Ridgeland, MS. The typical honeymoon period for a new restaurant is anywhere from two to three months. The way the scheduling worked out I was only able to spend 16 days in the newly opened restaurant before heading overseas for work. I hated to leave, but there were hard scheduling dates in Italy— and commitments— I needed to fulfill. It was my 24th restaurant opening and the first time I’ve not spent almost every shift in a restaurant for the first three months of its operation.

I have been handling business over here turning people on to the people, places, and restaurants I’ve discovered over the years. But the restaurants back home are always on my mind. I am down to the remaining five days and am lucky that this final week is with a Tuscany group I have traveled with before, we’re just doing all new things.

I look forward to adding new, authentic Italian items I’ve learned over here to the menus of our Italian restaurants. But there are other things I’ve been dreaming about lately.

I want to eat a stack of pancakes— as big as my face— at the Midtowner. I eat there every morning when I’m back in town. At Crescent City Grill it will be hard to decide between a roast beef po-boy or a fried shrimp po-boy and will probably order both. I miss the Tex-Mex Nachos and the Beef Chimichanga at El Rayo. I won’t be in town too long before I eat a cheeseburger, tots, and a chocolate malt at Ed’s Burger Joint.

Taste testing for the new bakery is just around the corner and during that process I am likely to put on the five pounds that I’ve lost over here.

My first stop on American soil is usually the Popeye’s Fried Chicken in the Atlanta airport— and I will surely do that— but I will eat a country fried steak with mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, fried corn, green bean casserole, and fried okra at the Midtowner on one of my early lunches back home.

I’ll sit at my desk in my office and work on the next two concepts we have on the drawing board and catch up on where Extra Table is as we reach year’s end. Budgets for the restaurants will be due in a matter of weeks, but I’ll have to catch up on these food cravings before I can focus on any financial matters.

The past six weeks have been a deep dive into Italian history, architecture, and culture, and a very deep dive into the Italian cuisine of Rome, Amalfi, Naples, and Tuscany. That’s over 120 authentic Italian meals since early October. I’m ready to hit the ground running creating new Italian dishes for the restaurants. But I’m also ready for that stack of pancakes as big as my face.


Pasta Roberto

I developed this for a friend’s birthday hosted at my home. It works well with large groups of all ages.

I brought it in as a potential menu item during the initial recipe-testing phase of Tabella. It didn’t have a name, but – as a joke— I listed the temporary, tongue-in-cheek title as “Pasta Roberto,” assuming that we would find a better name before we opened.

As we were getting the restaurant ready to open in the weeks before the launch, I cooked it often for the manager and staff lunches. They called it Pasta Roberto, too. We never came up with an official name and it still on the menu as Pasta Roberto.

1 lb. Dry fusilli pasta
1 gallon Water
¼ cup Kosher salt
2 TB Extra virgin olive oil
½ lb. Italian sausage links, roasted or grilled, quartered, and sliced
¼ cup Shallot, minced
½ lb.  Porcini mushrooms, sliced (other mushrooms can be substituted)
½ cup Red bell peppers, cut into matchsticks
2 TB Dry white wine
¾ cup Parmigianino Reggiano, grated
¾ cup Marinara sauce
¾ cup Alfredo sauce

Cook fusilli according to the directions on the package.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the sausage, mushrooms and red bell peppers and cook, stirring frequently, about 6-8 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and allow the wine to cook out completely, about 2-3 minutes.

Fold in the marinara and Alfredo and stir until hot. Add the hot fusilli pasta and the cheese and combine thoroughly.

Divide among six serving bowls.

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.