ROBERT ST. JOHN: Gratitude is abundant on Amalfi morning | Lifestyle

PRAIANO, AMALFI COAST, ITALY – “I believe that God lives on the beach, but only at sunrise. In the heat of the day, when the sun is high, I think he hangs out in the cool of the forest. But he always comes back to the seashore at sunset.” Those are words I wrote for the foreword to a friend’s book several years back. I developed that concept when I first visited the Amalfi Coast on the Mediterranean side of Italy, just south of the Bay of Naples. Actually, I believe that when God came up with the idea of sunrises and sunsets, he had the Amalfi Coast in mind.

Of course, God is everywhere. I know that. It’s just that there is something very spiritual to me in the look and feel of a sunrise and a sunset. Maybe it’s that time when I am most God-aware. It is certainly the time I am most grateful.

For more than 20 years I have written this column very early every Monday morning. Sometimes I start writing it in my bed as soon as I wake up when my mind is fresh and free of outside clutter and finish it at our breakfast joint sitting at my usual seat at the counter, or later that morning at the desk in my office. I always have the same classical music file playing in the background. None of those locations can come close to the view in which I am typing these words this morning. 

Italy is such a unique, history-filled, and diverse country that all one has to do is drive a couple hundred miles in any direction to encounter a different culture and a different people with different attitudes. That’s mainly because Italy wasn’t a unified country until 1871. To have a culture and history that goes back thousands of years, that’s not a very long time. That is why many Italians think of themselves as citizens of their city or region first.

Citizens of Rome often call themselves Romans before identifying as Italians. The same goes for Venetians in Venice, Tuscans in Tuscany, Milanese in Milan, and Sicilians in Sicily.

It’s not too different in America. Many Texans consider themselves Texan before American. A few weeks ago, I was on a research and development food-tour in Dallas and Houston and saw several T-shirts in the airport that read, “American until Texas succeeds.” 

From my balcony the sun is slowly rising to my left. The colors are subtle but impressive. The small village of Praiano is in the foreground and it is hours before the bell in the tower will ring its first toll of the day. In front of me – far down the cliffs in the sea – are fishermen, who work alone in the stillness of the early morning, in small wooden paddle boats. They are maneuvering small casting nets to haul in their catch, which will be loaded into a small ice chest on the backs of scooters later this morning. Then they will make it up the tight winding roads to the fish mongers who dot the mountainside where the fishermen’s haul will be cleaned before sending it out to local restaurants later this morning. 

My best friend, collaborator, and business partner, Wyatt Waters, and I are hosting 25 people this week through Rome-Amalfi-Naples. We all enjoyed some of that wonderfully fresh seafood last night at a dinner high above Positano with a view that I had only seen in books before coming here for the first time a decade ago. 

We lead tours in several parts of Italy and seafood is available most places as this country is flanked by the Mediterranean on the west and the Adriatic on the east. We spend the most time in Tuscany, and a substantial part of Tuscany is on the sea, but – as much as I love Tuscan food – the way they prepare seafood is not to my liking.

The farther south I travel in Italy, the more I eat seafood. It starts in this area and increases all of the way down to Sicily. It’s the same for me in America. I love the seafood of the Gulf Coast – not only because I feel it is superior to that of the Atlantic and Pacific, but because I live within an hour of the Gulf and we know how to cook seafood to make it taste best. Doubt me if you will, but you’ll likely be doubting with a mouthful of bland cod instead of blackened tripletail.

Now the sun is up, and the colors are gone. The sky is almost as blue as the water in this part of the world. It’s going to be another clear, beautiful day as we head to the island of Capri to eat more of the amazing seafood this area has to offer. The church bell just rang. It’s 7:30 a.m. and this town is waking up. I have to get to work. Leading tour groups is hard work, but I’m grateful for it, and if one has to work, this is a pretty good place to do it.

I always feel blessed these days. I have a wonderful, loving, and supportive wife, two amazing children, great friends, and co-workers to whom I am grateful for and dedicated to, but, in this moment, I am grateful for all of those things and the ability to come to work in places like this, to witness sunrises such as this, and to fellowship with friends – old and new – and enjoy the food, art, and culture of Italy.

The Amalfi Coast is such a unique and beautiful place it must have inspired countless writers and poets over the centuries. It certainly inspires this burger-flipper-with-a-keyboard from South Mississippi. 

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Amalfi Fish Stew at Follow him on Twitter @robertstjohn.

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