In a small town in the heart of southern Tuscany is a restaurant where guests can find not only unique and delicious food, but also cultural enlightenment and wisdom at the table.
The town is Montisi, the restaurant is Taverna Da Roberto, and the man behind it is Roberto Crocenzi.
From time to time the Let’s Go Eat Team likes to hit the road, sample the exotic cuisine of foreign realms. Italy in particular.
And during one of these sojourns we discovered tiny Montisi, a medieval village maybe four blocks long, situated on a cypress- and palm tree-lined hill above the UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated Val d’Orcia (Orcia River Valley), not far from the better known towns of Pienza and Montepulciano.
Improbably, Montisi is home to three great restaurants, including Da Roberto, which we’ve made a habit of coming back to again and again.
Because only Da Roberto (which means “at Robert’s house”) has Signore Roberto Crocenzi.
And you literally are at his house when you eat there. He lives upstairs.
Owner and sole employee, he is very serious about what he does, whether it’s cooking, sourcing the food, enforcing decorum and civility in his place, or passing along his wisdom.
Crocenzi spent a previous career rising up the ranks in the auto industry, and when the opportunity came to retire and move on to his true passions of food and wine, he seized it.
Besides being an accomplished chef, he’s a sommelier and a cheese expert. And very particular about the way his food is prepared, served and enjoyed by his guests.
If you order the cold cut antipasto, for example, the dish will come with strict instructions from him: eat them in a certain order, and do not, under any circumstances, touch the cured meats with silverware — it oxides.
Guests who fail to abide by these instructions will hear about it.
And Crocenzi cooks without any salt, which is, suffice to say, somewhat unusual in Italy. Yet he still manages to impart amazing flavor to all the dishes he offers.
During our visits there, we’ve learned much from Crocenzi about how food is produced, what one should be consuming, and not consuming.
“Always get whole milk — low- and nonfat have too much processing,” he told us.
And how to properly enjoy a leisurely lunch.
“Never have them decant your wine, that’s just done to hurry you along,” Crocenzi shared.
We’ve gotten advice on love, cheese, politics, relationships, the best way to make ragu (meat sauce), travel, and the importance of proper sourcing of ingredients.
Crocenzi’s guidance on Italian culture and life has been invaluable. He taught us, for example, the following:
In Italy, any small restaurant, bar or shop is treated as an extension of the owner’s home. You do not, as we do in the United States, simply walk in.
Instead, a polite person will pause at the threshold, and ask if it’s OK to enter. (In Italian, simply say, “Posso.” Means, “May I?”).
Try this next time you’re there, and watch as you are instantly transformed from annoying tourist into valued guest.
One of the requests at Da Roberto — and applicable everywhere in Italy — is do not order anything you’re not going to eat all of. No wasting food by just tasting some and pushing the rest around.
One year we were able to enjoy a couple of lunches there, and as we seated ourselves during our second visit, Crocenzi chastised us, saying with a stern look, “I noticed that last time you were here you did not finish your sausage.”
An uncomfortable silence ensued as we feared being invited to the kitchen for some dish-washing penance, when he saved us by saying, “And you were right. It had too much salt. So I called the butcher and had him reduce it by 11%.”
The man is precise.
Back at home, in large part due to our lunches at Da Roberto, Team LGE has changed how and where we shop, placing much more emphasis on, and inquiring more often about the sourcing of the individual ingredients.
And we frequently find ourselves asking, when it comes to culinary (and sometimes nonculinary) matters, “What would Roberto do?”
Da Roberto has only a few tables, which are (weather permitting) outside on the lovely pergola-covered patio with a great view. Reservations are imperative.
Since Signore Crocenzi does all the cooking and the serving, the lunch is leisurely and delicious, and exactly like being a valued guest in someone’s home.
As every restaurant experience should be.
When You Go
Da Roberto — at Via Umberto 1, Montisi, Tuscany — can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and +39.0577.845159
Reservations are required.