Driving through Vicchio, Italy last year, I did a double take when I saw a sign boasting “Dad’s Bar B Q.” Vicchio, in the Mugello Valley of Tuscany, is not a tourist destination, but a very small town 15 minutes from Villa Campestri, home to my Let’s Go Cook Italian culinary experience.
Typically, the only tourists I see here are guests of the Villa or Moto GP enthusiasts coming to see their local hero, Valentino Rossi, at the nearby Ferrari Autodroma in Scarperia. A visit to Dad’s was on this year’s must-do list.
The Villa Campestri staff had already told me they thought it was really good food and that the owners were “so nice.” They were right on both counts. What they didn’t know, and wanted me to tell them, was if the food was “authentic” American barbecue.
Partners Donald Scalmanini, who left San Jose 20 years ago for a life in Italy, and Riccardo Caloffi, a lifelong resident of the Mugello area, have created something very special — definitely authentic.
“Why Vicchio?” I asked. Why not a bigger city with more exposure? They explained that their concept is for local Italians who may never have the opportunity to travel to the U.S., but also for American students in the area and Americans who’ve made Italy their new home, yet sometimes miss the tastes they left behind. This is a really cool idea.
The restaurant was full on a Friday night — mostly Italians, but also two transplants from Santa Cruz. The decor is a little Texas and a little New Orleans, with a touch of Memphis.
The beef is local and organic, as is their pork from the farms of the winemaking Frescobaldi family. So, Donald and Riccardo begin with quality.
I had a variety of small bites in order to get the big picture. Keep in mind that Italian “small bites” are not necessarily “small.” From sweet tea to hot apple pie, the food was as authentic as it gets.
The “Dream Plate” appetizers included a smoky fried chicken wing, beef basil meatballs on a stick with a zesty sauce, and a jalapeño stuffed with sausage and fig and wrapped in pancetta, called a “Texas Lollipop” — all amazing.
While you wait, they also serve fresh chopped tomato salsa with an easy kick and no cilantro. Italians, on the whole, are not fond of cilantro. Tortilla chips come with the salsa and also a basket of fresh bread, baked by Riccardo. Everything is served in woven plastic baskets that match the yellow and red plastic squirt bottles for sauces.
The sampler plate had a beef rib abundant with succulent meat that just fell off the bone; roasted pork butt, sliced thinly, incredibly tender with great juices; and a pulled pork that melted in your mouth with delicious charred crunchy bits. Homemade bread, pulled pork, a dollop of Carolina coleslaw and squirts of the table-side sauce, and I had the perfect pulled pork slider.
Southern-style potato salad is on the menu, as are Texas-style onion rings — local sweet onions in the lightest-ever batter. One word: addictive.
There are a few wood oven pizzas with names like Bourbon Street and a few pastas for those just transitioning to barbecue.
The final test of authenticity was homemade hot apple pie. With a delicate flaky crust, thinly sliced apples and just the right amount of cinnamon, it’s served a la mode. Vanilla gelato? Nope, Ben & Jerry’s. Remember, this is an American experience. Dad’s will even rent a mechanical bull for parties.
Before I left, Donald asked if I had any suggestions, and truthfully, the only suggestion I could make was that the potato salad could come up a notch to offer more flavor. He knew exactly what I was talking about. Introducing our yummy, mayonnaisey creation to the Italian culture takes time. I told Donald I might have a compromise that would pair nicely with their perfect barbecue: Pesto potato salad. I’m sharing my recipe with him and with you.
Pesto Potato Salad
3 small bunches fresh basil
1 clove minced garlic
Pinch of salt
1 heaping Tbsp. fresh grated Parmesan cheese
1 heaping Tbsp. fresh grated pecorino cheese
1 heaping Tbsp. pine nuts
6 oz. olive oil
Wash and dry basil and discard stems.
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until creamy. If the mixture is too thick, add a small amount of hot water and continue to blend.
Note: The pesto can be stored and frozen in ice cube trays. After the sauce has frozen, remove the cubes and store them in small zipper-lock bags. Use the individual cubes as needed.
For potato salad:
3 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes
3 whole green onions
1/2 large cucumber
1 heaping Tbsp. capers
1/3 cup sliced canned black olives
1/2 heaping cup pesto (recipe above)
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil potatoes in salted water until fork-tender. Allow to cool, peel, and cut into chunky cubes. Place in a large mixing bowl.
Peel cucumber. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds. Coarsely chop. Slice green onion (including greens) wafer-thin. Thinly slice black olives.
Add green onion, cucumber, olives and capers to potatoes. Add pesto sauce and gently toss until all ingredients are mixed and well coated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Chill well before serving.