PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, TUSCANY— The first tour I ever led was seven years ago. My friend Andy Wiest, a history professor and war historian at the University of Southern Mississippi, and I created a tour we called Battlefields and Baguettes. We toured London, Belgium, Normandy and Paris with a group. Wiest led our group through battlegrounds, museums, and World War I and World War II cemeteries during the day, and I took them to local cafés and brasseries in the evening. It was a blast.
Scroll down for zucchini pasta recipe
Every day was educational and meaningful, though the highlights of that trip were the entire day around the beach at Normandy and a day in Paris when we sat for a few hours visiting with a French holocaust survivor. It was around that time that I began thinking about leading more tours to other parts of Europe.
Three years earlier, I had spent six months traversing Western Europe. It’s a trip that took me two years to plan. From January 2009 through July 2011, I spent almost every night in the bed plotting and researching the 17 countries, 72 cities and dozens upon dozens of hotels, villas, restaurants and VRBOs across the continent. That research became important because, after that initial tour, I began to field numerous inquiries from people who were interested in visiting Italy.
My friend and uber-talented watercolor artist Wyatt Waters and I began leading people to areas of Italy we had discovered while working on our book “An Italian Palate.” The first tours in Italy were mostly filled with places I discovered during that original research stint, but also places that were recommended by locals and places we discovered while we had feet on the ground while working on the book.
The Italy tours were going to be a one-time thing, but word spread, and the tours kept us busy for a few years. We began adding new locations and even new countries. Once COVID hit, Waters made the decision to retire from overseas tours to focus on local projects (he never stops ... keep your eyes out for his new book, soon) and I have made the decision to carry on, as I love doing it and plan to keep turning guests on to the people and places I have discovered — and keep discovering — over the years.
Something must be going right in all of this because, of the 25 people who are touring Spain with me in March, more than half of them will have traveled with me before, and for many of those, it will be their fourth or fifth trip with me. Basically, we are now a group of friends traveling together.
COVID hit the pause button on the tours, but we have a full slate we are booking in the spring and fall of 2022. Those will be with guests we have rescheduled due to COVID and new travelers who have been patiently waiting to travel overseas with me for the first time. As I type, I am in one of the villas we frequent in Tuscany. The COVID situation over here is being handled very well. Ultimately, it’s probably safer over here than it is back home.
The Tuscany tours have been honed down to one week where our guests get a full immersion into the people, places, food, wine, architecture, art, craftsmanship of this part of the world. The cool thing about it for travelers is that it’s all “hits.” There are no misses. I have tweaked the agenda over the years and added new restaurants, wineries and sites to make it a one-of-a-kind and local non-touristic experience. I am also working on a tour I call Tuscany 2.0 for the people who have already toured with us in Tuscany and want to return for new encounters.
So, I am in the middle of a two-week discovery tour with my wife. My friend Jesse, who helps us with tours in Rome, the Amalfi Coast and Spain, calls it a “survey.” It’s basically research and development for points of future travel. When I am leading tours, there isn’t a lot of time for the exploration and scrutiny of new places.
That was a very long setup to say I have just eaten the two best pasta dishes in my life. Over the past 10 years, I have eaten pasta from the tip of Sicily to the Alps. Though the two pastas I recently had— one in our local village at our friend Paolo’s restaurant and another by the Mediterranean in a beautiful seaside village — were the best. Period. End of story.
One was an old favorite; the other was a new discovery.
The pasta at Paolo’s was a basic Arrabiata pasta, which is made by crushing spicy red chilies and garlic into a paste then adding it to crushed tomatoes (the Italians would call it a “tomato sauce,” but what they mean are canned whole tomatoes that have been pureed, not marinara). They sauté the pepper-garlic mixture with olive oil, the tomatoes, add salt and pepper, a little pasta water and whatever type of pasta they choose (spaghetti in my case). Extremely simple, but so flavorful. The key is the peppers. It’s hot and it is meant to be as the arrabiata means “angry” in Italian. I have eaten the dish dozens of times over the years, but over the past few days, it seems to be better than ever. Our guests this spring and fall will get to experience it for themselves.
The new pasta that I have just discovered was in the beautiful seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, a place unlike any other I have visited in Italy. This is where R&D pays off. I will definitely be taking travelers to this town, to the unique market there and to eat this specific pasta, which was — as all of the best Italian dishes are— extremely simple with limited ingredients. It was a shrimp pasta with a lemon sauce. They wouldn’t give me the recipe, but I am going to figure it out when I get back home. It’s one of those dishes that I should have taken a photo of but finished it before I could even think about it. It’s three days later and I am still thinking about it.
This is how these tours have evolved over the years. The first groups went to the places I discovered on that initial trip. Now I have discovered so much more that I can share. I am returning home in a few days with a few dozen new discoveries, and I can’t wait to share them.
The first official tour I led was seven years ago, but one of the greatest joys throughout my life has been turning people on to things I have discovered, whether it’s a restaurant in some American city or remote rural outpost or a new album or a new band. There is something deep inside of me that loves to share my experiences with others. The greatest outlet of that thing (whatever it is) is touring in Europe. Because when I take a person to a restaurant or silversmith or farm or local artisan’s shop, and I see and feel their excitement and their joy of discovery in that moment, it takes me back to the first time I felt that emotion, and it feels new all over again.
The best way to keep discovering is to share your discoveries with others.
Gluten-free is all the rage these days. This recipe takes care of that and is vegetarian, too.
3 pounds zucchini
1 tbsp + 1 tsp kosher salt
½ cup + 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp fresh garlic, minced
2 cups roma tomatoes, small diced
½ cup pesto
2 tbsp dry white wine
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano as needed
• Slice the zucchini on a mandoline fitted with the 1/8-inch shoestring attachment. Toss the zucchini in 1 tsp of the salt and place in a strainer for 30 minutes to draw out excess moisture. This will be used as your “pasta.”
• Separately, combine the pesto and ½ cup of the olive oil.
• Heat the remaining 2 tbsp of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Add the zucchini and remaining salt and pepper. Continue cooking for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with white wine and cook until it has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Fold in the pesto mixture and toss thoroughly for 2 more minutes.
• Divide among 6 bowls and finish with grated cheese and more olive oil if desired.