The next time you travel to Italy, it would be best to go with nationally celebrated chef-author-restaurateur Robert St. John. Failing that, be sure to get your hands on the Hattiesburg native’s latest cookbook "An Italian Palate," just published by Different Drummer Press.
"An Italian Palate" is St. John’s ninth book, and the third produced in collaboration with his best friend, artist Wyatt Waters, whose luminous watercolors provide the illustration. The book documents the two men's 10-week sojourn throughout Italy with St. John’s wife and two children – and their unexpected, unabashed love affair with the country.
St. John and Waters will be in Meridian this week for a book signing at Cater's Market. Jamie Cater, owner of the specialty foods/gourmet-to-go/organic products store, considers St. John an inspiration.
"I admire Robert's enthusiasm for the food industry," she said. "He is an inspiration for me professionally, but I also love all the stories he shares about his family life and how food is a part of everything he does."
Cater describes St. John and Waters as "a dynamic duo." The two are familiar faces at Cater's, having made appearances at the North Meridian business for signings of their previous publications.
"An Italian Palate's" official launch coincided with a 60-painting exhibit of Waters’ work – capturing their journey through small villages, valleys, and ancient cities – with a book signing at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. To view the full collection, Waters’ 60 additional original pieces will be on view at the historic Odd Fellows Gallery in St. John’s hometown of Hattiesburg.
Fans of St. John’s syndicated newspaper column will eagerly lap up the frequent “Travel Journal” entries, in his unmistakable style best described as ‘engaging-confidential-ramble,’ on topics ranging from olive oil, to daily breakfast at the pasticceria, to the best pizza on the planet. Where else could we hope to read, “The stress level is so low I can almost feel my hair growing back”??
The St. Johns had decided to replace six months of the children’s conventional education with an extended tour of Europe, and, together, they were rewarded with a priceless family experience – and in-depth culinary research. Taking in the history, arts, and architecture along the way, they ate their way through Italy, in the finest – but not necessarily the most expensive – restaurants of Rome, Florence, Milan and neighboring towns and villages, as well as in the kitchens of new-found friends. The whole family was involved in seeking out the very best, the “book-worthy” dishes. “I paid attention to what our kids and companions were responding to, in looking for the most approachable dishes,” he says. “My daughter’s go-to pasta and my son’s favorite gnocchi were clearly keepers – although it was usually hard for me to get a fork in edge-wise.”
Waters, meanwhile, was soaking in the Italian vistas and transferring his vision to his heavy watercolor paper at the rate of two a day. St. John would drive him to a spot every morning and collect him in the evening, and Waters’ tales of his adventures with, say, fishmongers, or the police force of Siena, told in the captions of his images, are every bit as compelling as his friend’s musings on truffle hunting and white beans.
The recipes themselves are a generous offering of St. John’s favorites from a cuisine he finds enchanting in its simplicity. “True Italian cooking is uncomplicated, uses minimal, fresh ingredients, and in most cases is light and healthful,” he writes in his introduction. One chapter, “Dispensa,” meaning “larder or pantry” in Italian, provides insight to all the basics worth mastering, from Pizza Dough to Marinara Sauce to Roasted Garlic Aïoli.
Cater plans to prepare several recipes from "An Italian Palate" for Friday's book signing. While she enjoys the book's recipe offerings, Cater said there are other perks.
"I enjoyed following St. John's trip with his family and Wyatt Waters – which inspired this new cookbook," she said. "But this book is more than a cookbook. It is also a coffee table book that transports you to Italy and all the places they traveled."
Copies of "An Italian Palate" will be available for purchase at Friday's book signing at Cater's Market.
St. John and Waters’ first collaboration, "A Southern Palate," sold out completely in three weeks [that’s 10,000 copies] and, according to St. John, this is their finest work yet. So, whether you’re in it for St. John’s engaging observations on everything from his young son’s chances of moving to Bologna on the strength of its gelato, to Italy’s contribution to a “killer” Sloppy Joe sandwich; or, for his favorite recipes adapted from his experience abroad; or, for Waters’ glowing watercolor impressions of the land that has inspired the world’s finest artists for millennia, be sure this jaunt to Italy is on your fall calendar.
Robert St. John is the proprietor of Purple Parrot Café, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Tabella, and Branch, all on Hardy Street in his hometown of Hattiesburg.
Want to go?
What: Book signing of Robert St. John's "An Italian Palate" cookbook
When: Friday, from 11 a.m.-
Where: Cater's Market, 5201 Highway 493
Information: (601) 482-5515