ROBERT ST. JOHN: World Class Views in Italy | Local News

PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, ITALY — Customers judge restaurants by many criteria. I once read a poll in which the majority of people ranked service above food and atmosphere. I also read a study that found toilet cleanliness in the top three. While I agree that all of these factors are important, I have always judged a restaurant first and foremost on the quality of its food.

I have tasted hundreds of great meals at some of the most memorable joints and dive bars in my life. I have also dined at many fine dining establishments which have disappointed me and left much to be desired.

For me, it’s almost always a question of food. Almost.

I eat to live. This is a true statement. It’s on my business card and it’s in every personal biography ever published. I consider myself a “world class eater”. Granted, this is an eponymous characterization and meant to be a tongue-in-cheek title that talks more about my ability to eat than my culinary prowess, but it’s true nonetheless. I keep an ongoing food diary, and the focus is almost always on the quality of the food in the restaurants I visit, rarely on the atmosphere.

I got my undergraduate degree in hotel management and one of the main principles my professors put forward when it comes to restaurant success was: location, location, location. I’ve listened to dozens of instructor lectures on how a good location will keep a restaurant alive, even a poorly run restaurant. And how a bad location can kill a good restaurant. I took this to heart and opened my first restaurant, and many subsequent restaurants, on the main thoroughfare of my hometown with 40,000 car traffic.

In the United States, “place” is almost always about visibility and traffic, whether it’s foot traffic or automobile traffic. Location in the United States is also tied to parking and accessibility. This too was pierced in my psyche in college classes, and that’s probably why most of my restaurants are blessed with tons of parking.

In Italy, especially Tuscany, “location” means a whole different thing.

When I first came to this area 10 years ago, I realized Tuscany was a lot like the southern United States and, in many ways, Mississippi. It is an agrarian society, but instead of soybeans and cotton, they grow grapes and olives. Tuscans, like Mississippians, value family more than anything else. Like us, they attach great importance to sharing meals with family and friends. And above all, they are – almost for one person – kind, generous and hospitable.

I was 18 before visiting the Mississippi Delta. But one of the first things I noticed when I was there on this inaugural visit was that people didn’t hesitate to drive an hour for dinner in three cities. I enjoyed it even then. I’m the kind of guy who thinks of driving 90 minutes to New Orleans for a nice sandwich, only to get straight home.

In Tuscany, locals regularly eat meals in three towns. But it’s not just about going somewhere else. Often it is the remoteness of the place. Nowhere is this statement more true than in Catinetta di Rignatta.

Catinetta di Rignatta is probably the most secluded restaurant I have ever visited. And I’ve eaten in a ton of secluded places in my career. From secluded mountain-top cabanas in the snow-capped Colorado peaks, to secluded oceanfront cabins on Mexico Beach, to snorkeling spots in the Mississippi Delta. But none have been so far apart as Catinetta di Rignatta. None have been as difficult to reach as Catinetta di Rignatta. And no other place has even come close to food as good as Catinetta di Rignatta.

Catinetta di Rignatta is located in the Tuscan hills behind a secluded abbey accessible by a single lane road, at the end of a kilometer long gravel road filled with holes and dust winding and steep and difficult for a non-four wheeler. -drive the vehicle even in dry weather.

It goes against all established dogmas of American restaurants when it comes to location, location, location. It is a place you will never find, even if you were lost in the Tuscan hills. And that would be your loss because Catinetta di Rignatta has the best restaurant view of the Tuscan countryside that can be found in the area. The locals know it. They make the trip, and they pack it up on the weekends.

Did I mention there is no parking? Despite the hundreds of people who come to eat there on weekends, the overflow parking lot is among the trees of an olive grove.

I use the term ‘world-class view’ more than I should have, and I regret it now, because if a view from a restaurant table has ever been truly world-class and unique, that’s fine. this one.

Over the years, I have had lunch on a rooftop with a view of the Temple of Zeus and the Parthenon in Athens, picnicking under the redwoods in California. Dined on mountain tops and by the sea, in sidewalk cafes across Europe, and in high-rise skyscrapers across the United States. But of all these places, over all these years, and all of these meals, I think none can compare – in terms of the quality of the view and the distance from the location – to the lunch I have. took yesterday in the Tuscan countryside in Catinetta di Rignatta.

This was my second time eating there and I was sitting at the exact same table as the first time a few years ago. But there was something about this visit that will stay with me as long as I live. A lot of the same players from the first visit were there, but I think having my wife and longtime travel partner to share this restaurant experience that I had told him about for several years made a difference.

Catinetta di Rignatta is not just a question of location and view. The food is spot on. In true Tuscan style, everything is simple, basic, fresh and cultivated a few kilometers from the restaurant. Melon and prosciutto, pears and cheese, pecorino and honey, and some nice antipasti, and that’s just the start. In most of my favorite restaurants, whether in Europe or the United States, I could make a full meal out of nothing but appetizers. Catinetta di Rignatta is no exception. Of course, we didn’t. We ordered pasta, entrees, salad and desserts. But I could have stopped with the antipasti.

I don’t know how many other meals of a lifetime I have in me. I hope for hundreds. However, at age 60, I learned to appreciate those memorable moments with more passion. Days like this, with the view of the Tuscan countryside, paired with a day of blue birds, perfect cuisine, and most of all, sharing with people I love, will be days I will never forget.

Forward.

About Robert Davis

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