It's a Monday afternoon in Florence, and Francesco Ricchi wants to go to the Palio. The medieval-style horse race takes place in Siena, about an hour away, and it will probably be over before we can get there. But that's not the point. The point is that Siena is where the action is this afternoon, and the look on Ricchi's face tells me that's where he wants to be.

I've been in Italy with Ricchi, one of Washington's newest, most talked-about chefs, only three days by this time, but already I know this look. It's unguarded and hungry -- the brows raised, the eyes fixed on some tempting opportunity. I come to think of it as Ricchi's Palio look, but over the course of the week, I will see it triggered by rice-flavored ice cream, a ticket to a World Cup match, an invitation to the opening of the first Mexican restaurant in Florence, even by the discovery that the pa~te' we thought was a kind of chicken liver was, in fact, veal spleen (and delicious).

But there's another look, an almost embarrassed, what-can-I-do look. It plays to my sympathies, asks my forgiveness. I come to think of it as the 45-year-old Ricchi's tortelloni look, and, with the Palio look, it becomes emblematic of what we're doing in the lush green hills of Tuscany in these first days of July.

I FIRST SEE THE TORTELLONI LOOK AT MY INITIAL meeting in Washington with Francesco and Christianne Ricchi, the co-owners of i Ricchi (pronounced ee REE-kee), the phenomenally successful 20-month-old Italian restaurant on 19th Street NW in downtown Washington. I have come to the restaurant to ask when the Florentine-born Francesco is planning his next trip to Italy.

When they're not cooking, chefs are eating. And when they're not eating, they're traveling -- in order to eat, of course, to try new restaurants, new dishes, new presentations. Italian and French chefs in America, especially, go home to the source of their inspiration, turning vacations into busman's holidays. Roberto Donna, the 29-year-old chef-owner of Galileo, heads home to Turin two or three times a year. There, he and his recently widowed mother try the new restaurants she's been taking notes on since his last trip. The fabled Jean-Louis Palladin applies his French technique to inventing new dishes with American produce. But he too travels, although not exclusively to his native France. "If you stay in the kitchen all the time, you get a little stale," he says.

So it isn't unreasonable to assume that Ricchi, in his effort to reproduce in Washington the traditional foods of Florence, will have to refresh his taste memory from time to time with a trip home. In fact, he tells me, he has already done it once this year. Wrung-out by their restaurant's instant success (60 dinners the very first night and a highly publicized visit by the newly inaugurated George Bush four weeks later), and by the succession of 20-hour workdays that followed, the Ricchis had headed for the hills of Tuscany in March.

"I had to go," Francesco Ricchi says. "I lost touch with what we were doing."

Francesco went first; the Long Island-born Chris followed later with the children. Their destination: Cercina, 15 minutes of gear-grinding roads up into the hills above Florence. That was where Ricchi's grandfather opened a little grocery store in 1929, where he and his parents started, in 1964, to serve Sunday dinner, and where Chris and Francesco turned Trattoria i Ricchi into a country destination for fresh-air-seeking Florentines. Today the restaurant is run by Ricchi's younger brother, Giovanni, and his wife, Stefania.

Ricchi gestures toward the Washington kitchen, tucked behind the open oak-log fire. "Here," he says, in the English he's still working to perfect, "we were making our tortelloni, and I thought was pretty good." So did the food critics who reviewed i Ricchi's Washington debut. One called the plump spinach-and-ricotta-filled pasta in butter and sage "a revelation."

"But," Ricchi continues, "in Cercina in March, I went into the kitchen and I tasted Bruna's tortelloni. Bruna is an old farm woman who is cooking for us.

"They were so light, and the pasta was so del-i-cate." Ricchi speaks slowly, deliberately, pronouncing all the syllables with exquisite care. Even more reason, then, that when he says Bruna Bianchi's tortelloni are "del-i-cate," he sounds as though he's describing a 15th-century Italian fresco or, as he sometimes is, his tall, sternly patrician-looking wife.

Ricchi's forehead creases into the pained, embarrassed tortelloni look. The delight in Bruna's handiwork has turned into dismay about his own. "I've changed the flour for the pasta six, seven times. I can't get it to be as elastic. And is not yellow, because I cannot find fresh eggs. The ricotta here is good, there's good product, but it's nothing like the ricotta I get in Cercina. There is so dry, it makes a better mix." Ricchi's look is ricocheting back and forth between fond reminiscence and guilty embarrassment: a full tortelloni. A few more minutes of this and I know he'll be Italy-bound before long.

IT'S NOON ON THE LAST FRIDAY IN JUNE, AND WE'RE zipping along the autostrada toward Florence. Ricchi has just picked me up at the Pisa airport and already he's pointing something out to me. From the corner of one jet-lagged eye, I see Pisa's famous off-plumb tower in the distance. No time for that now. Z-i-i-i-p.

I know this road. Coming up, on the edge of Lucca, is the big Bertolli olive-oil plant. Z-i-i-i-p. Off to the left, I point out the hilltop spa of Montecatini. "The home of smelly water," says Ricchi, with a shrug. Z-i-i-i-p, z-i-i-i-p.

We have a lot of places to cover, and now I see we're going to plunge right in. Before we head up into the hills, we're going to the San Frediano section of Florence. Italy's a country where people still know how to make things. Fortunately, one of those things is lunch. It's time for a taste of traditional Tuscan food, at a place called La Vecchia Bettola.

A bettola, the dictionary says, is a tavern. Ricchi says it's a little "lower" than a trattoria, which itself is lower than a full-fledged ristorante. The Old Tavern is certainly simple, a place where strangers join you at marble-topped market tables and the menu is written on coarse brown paper. But there's a write-up from W magazine on the wall, and lunch, Italian-style -- meaning a relentless march from the antipasto to the first course (usually a pasta or a soup), to the second course of meat or fish, plus a vegetable, then dessert and coffee -- will run more than $50 for two. That's before adding the wine and mineral water, and that's a very moderately priced meal in today's prosperous Italy.

Ricchi and La Vecchia Bettola's owner, Loriano Stagi, start the procession of dishes: a few slices of finocchiona, a fennel-seed-studded salami; crostini, little toasts spread with what turns out to be that veal spleen; Tuscan prosciutto, a ham that's saltier than its Parma counterpart because the accompanying Tuscan bread is made without salt; pappa al pomodoro, a thick, smooth porridge made from nothing but stale crusty bread, chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, pepper and olive oil; Pappardelle Alla Bettola, wide noodles deliciously doused with a sauce made from "all the insides of the chicken," Ricchi translates. I begin to realize that I've never ordered the right things at i Ricchi in Washington. I've been eating carpaccio and grilled tuna in a place that's offering pappa al pomodoro.

I'm not the only one. Pappa al pomodoro is not a big seller in Washington. Out of an average 400 lunches and dinners a day, maybe 20 orders are for the pappa al pomodoro or the ribollita, another Tuscan poor-people's dish based on leftover bean soup and stale bread. "That's the miracle of Florentine food," Ricchi explains with a short laugh. "Is based on nothing. Before to give to the dog, we try to cook it."

The "poor" dishes at i Ricchi are not the only ones the Washington expense-account set ignores. At one point, Ricchi took the grilled goat chops off the menu. "They have little bones," he acknowledges, this time with no apologetic tortelloni look. "But after two, three people sent back, saying they were uneatable, I took off {the menu}. We don't want to fight against a mulino a vento -- a windmill -- like Don Quixote."

Also off the Washington menu is pancetta. Leaning back in his chair this sunny afternoon in Florence, Ricchi is making an imaginary cut across his belly, 25 pounds heavier since the move to Washington, to demonstrate where the thick-sliced bacon comes from. "It's fatty; they didn't like." A lot of the fried dishes have gone as well. "Here, is our spe-ci-al-i-ty," Ricchi says. "In Washington, nobody orders."

I Ricchi is not the only restaurant to contend with America's picky eaters, of course. Vince MacDonald, owner of the Italian seafood restaurant Vincenzo, rarely offers razorback clams anymore. "You have to buy 50-pound bags of clams," he says. "Then you'll sell only two orders." Shad roe is a similar story: Out of 20 sets, he'll sell maybe one. "You just can't stay in business that way."

IF WE'RE RUSHING THROUGH OUR LUNCH, IT'S ONLY because there's more on the agenda for this first day: a drive past Francesco and Chris's old hillside home, a stop to see San Andrea, Cercina's 12th-century parish church, check-in at my room behind the Pizzeria Le Terrazze, in nearby Montorsoli. And tonight at 9, the opening-night party for Piedra del Sol, Florence's new Mexican restaurant. But first we stop at Trattoria i Ricchi.

Striding through the rooms like the owner he was until he and Chris sold their interest in the place to Giovanni and Stefania, Ricchi points out the meat locker, stuffed with roasts and chops. He introduces Bruna, who smiles, all the while folding plump ravioli into tortelloni. The grill chef, Marco Fedi, comes in carrying a plastic dishpan piled high with plucked chickens. Their limp feet dangle over the edge and their eyes are closed, almost demurely, as though the birds are planning to sleep through dinner instead of providing it.

"Did you see this?" Ricchi is at my elbow, handing me a small saucer. "These are fresh cannellini beans, and they are s-o-o-o good." Patrons of i Ricchi in Washington would recognize them as the shiny, raw version of the beans that sit atop the toast in the fettunta appetizer ("fettunta" means "oily slice"; toasted country bread topped with chopped tomatoes or beans is "bruschetta" elsewhere in Italy). Ricchi shrugs and adds, "We use dry in Washington. I can't find fresh."

I'm not used to thinking of the United States as a Third World country, the kind your friends get posted to and then ask you to send Care packages of Pampers and diet soda and tapes of "Twin Peaks." But in trying to re-create Tuscany in Washington, Ricchi finds himself serving in the culinary equivalent of such an outpost. "In Cercina, I would call the breadmaker at night and tell him how many schiacciate I need," he says. But, as he and Chris discovered, no one in the D.C. area makes schiacciata, the Florentine name for focaccia ("In Florence we have our own name for everything"), a long, flat bread. That meant that before coming to Washington, Ricchi himself had to spend nights at the nearby Forno Landi, being taught by forno, or oven, master Cesare Landi how to make the bread that is the basis for pappa al pomodoro and ribollita. Only then would he be able to teach his kitchen staff how to do it.

But a year and a half after opening, he is still searching for farm-fresh eggs with dark yellow yolks. "You need them to make real rich gelato, ice cream, and to make the pasta nice and yellow."

I'm still standing behind Bruna, entranced by her dexterity. She and her new helper, a young female Romanian refugee, are working with fresh pasta dough and the velvety-smooth spinach-and-ricotta puree I recognize from Washington. As the two of them separate the pasta pouches with a rolling cutter, they set aside the trimmed-off strips of dough. Ricchi points to large, floured cardboard trays holding dozens of such strips. These strips, he explains, will become pappardelle, wide noodles that can stand up to i Ricchi's rich hare sauce.

But even the cardboard trays -- simple flexible cardboard trays -- elicit a sigh from Ricchi. "I can't find in the States. I looked," he says. For a minute, he looks at me as though America simply hasn't lived up to its billing, and somehow it's my fault.

The sigh is final proof, to me at least, that the famous Washington chef, the sunny little guy with the RICCHI license plates on his Dodge Caravan, is homesick. What's also clear is that he learned cooking and the restaurant business one way. He learned to cook as a child, in his grandmother's kitchen. By age 10 he was a "food runner" in his uncle's restaurant, taking orders from the kitchen. At 20 he was his father's partner in Cercina. Simple, traditional food is what he knows, so that's what he makes. And if that means the trimmings from the tortelloni have to rest on a kind of cardboard tray not found in the United States before they can become pappardelle, well, that's just the way things should be.

WITH ITS STUCCO WALLS PAINTED WITH ads for Mexican beers, Piedra del Sol looks like any of the dozen or so Tex-Mex and Mexican joints in Washington and New York. Its uniqueness here says something about the gustatory provincialism of Italians (a comforting thought for Americans who are sneered at for seeking out hamburgers abroad). The restaurateurs and food vendors and TV stars lined up for margaritas and guacamole are here because it's the place to be on this hot night. Whether the restaurant will be here in a year or two is another story.

At Piedra del Sol, Ricchi gets his Palio look as he dives into the throng. Soon he's bantering with his fellow restaurateurs about the business, about the World Cup game he's going to Milan for, about the Italian wines and olive oil he's starting to wholesale in the United States. The evening confirms what Ricchi already knows -- that even to these longtime pals, he is not the same. "They look at me differently now."

Everyone, from the owners of Italy's finest wineries to his old butcher to his former auto mechanic, teases Ricchi about the night George and Barbara Bush came to dinner. By leaving Italy, Ricchi may have upset (perhaps amused?) his old friends. By succeeding beyond his own wildest imaginings, he made all of Florence sit up and take notice. And he made an upwardly mobile leap, commonplace enough in America, perhaps, but not in Europe. In Florence, Trattoria i Ricchi is one of dozens of simple roadside trattorie. In Washington, Ristorante i Ricchi is one of the top restaurants in town. Ricchi's parents, though prosperous by any measure, still live over the store, watching television in the kitchen, their backs to the view of Florence. He and Chris, 38, and their two children -- Olivia, 11, and Danny, 6 1/2 -- live in a $900,000 home in McLean, find their names and pictures in local and national magazines, and en- tertain the president of the United States.

IT'S AFTER 11 AS WE LEAVE PIEDRA DEL Sol. First, Ricchi calls timeout for gelato. And then, as our car climbs back up to Cercina, Ricchi announces that it's just about time for dinner. Dinner? Ricchi shrugs. "It makes sense. Is dinner time in Washington."

Trattoria i Ricchi is closing down for the night as we arrive, and soon Ricchi has the run of the kitchen, including his choice of leftover sauces. As he roams the long, narrow space, he picks up and sets down little dishes, opens and closes cupboards, complaining about feeling like a stranger in his own kitchen.

He finds an acceptable sauce and gets some water boiling. Soon he's reminiscing about his and Chris's "midlife crisis," the vague dissatisfaction that caused them to look for opportunities beyond their little trattoria in Cercina, perhaps an inn, a hotel or another, bigger restaurant elsewhere in their beloved Tuscany. Then why the greater leap to the United States? And why Washington and not, say, New York? Those decisions stem from Danny's birth, 6 1/2 years ago, with "mosaic" Down's syndrome (meaning he has good cells as well as bad). The local doctors in Italy had little to offer in terms of special care, Ricchi says, so Chris's brother and sister-in-law, both pediatri- cians in Northern Virginia, urged them to bring Danny for tests at Children's Hospital.

Once it was clear the little boy would thrive with the combination of Children's and special programs offered by the Fairfax County school system, the Ricchis' decision was made. They put their Cercina house on the market (where it sat for two years), moved to Virginia, created a business plan for a new restaurant, began scouting locations, hiring contractors and finding purveyors. Meanwhile, Chris ran interference while Francesco got his English up to speed, and she also negotiated Danny into the right school programs. "Danny starts first grade this fall," Ricchi says as he puts some spaghetti into the boiling water. "And he's 'mainstreaming' with kids his own age."

I glance up at him. There's a lovely look on his face. No matter how foreign Washington is, the look says, it's the best thing for Danny.

But ambition played a role too. "I remember reading about these places, like {New York's} Le Cirque, and thinking maybe someday I'll be like that and they'll write about me. And then we got a few articles."

He pulls the spaghetti up out of the pot. "See, is gray in the middle. If is all the same, it means they rinse the spaghetti, they cook in advance, then heat it again when you order. Is okay, is a way to do, but this is better."

We sit in one of the deserted dining rooms, poking at the pasta. Ricchi continues. "And I remember hearing about Galileo, when Bush went there without a reservation. And I thought when I open, it would be nice if Bush would come. And he did. So all the things I was thinking about happened."

Ricchi is smelling the bread, smushing it up against his nose. He notices my stare. "That's how you tell good bread," he says with a shrug (he shrugs a lot). I try it. The yeasty odor is lively.

"The business in Washington is so different," he continues. "That was tough. Here we are re-lax-ed."

Chris remembers the couple's original fantasy for their business with a fondness bordering on disbelief. "We opened up with the idea that at the end of the night we'd go upstairs {to the office} and go over what happened in the restaurant that day, that Francesco would order and cook the food and that I would be out front, the way we did it at Cercina."

People who know the Washington restaurant scene may be astonished that the Ricchis thought they could run a simple family operation in the heart of downtown. But, as Chris says, "What did we know about the Golden Triangle, that 19th Street is the right street and that 24th Street is out of it?" That wisdom came, the Ricchis are quick to acknowledge, from the savvy banker and contractor and restaurant consultant they found. And in accepting that collective wisdom, they put themselves on a crash course with success and the stress it brings.

Light is spilling out the front door of Forno Landi as Ricchi drives me back to my hotel room. Landi is making the bread and rolls for the local hospital and bread shops. It's 2:30 in the morning, the end of my first day in Italy. As Chris Ricchi will say after hearing about these exhausting, exhilarating 14 1/2 hours, "Welcome to the life of a restaurateur."

THE REST OF THE WEEK PASSES IN A blur of pasta and wine and gelato. We visit bakeries. Ricchi laughs as he pats the bread dough at Forno Landi but sweats through his session at Pasticceria Saida, where he improves his technique for making millefoglie, an ice-cream-wafer-like pastry used to make desserts. We visit wineries -- Il Corno to order the Washington restaurant's house chianti, Ca' del Bosco and Capannelle to taste what a new generation of small, fine Italian vintners is producing. We manage to watch three World Cup games on TV. Ricchi escapes to Milan that one afternoon to watch West Germany clobber Czechoslovakia. And I get to eat lunch one day out on the terrace at Cercina. What do I order? Bruna's tortelloni, of course.

There's still business to be conducted too. One morning finds us heading for the hills on the south side of Florence, to the Sardelli olive-oil plant. The company produces several grades of oil, but Ricchi especially wants to be the distributor for Sardelli's unfiltered extra-virgin oil. It's the traditional Tuscan oil, the one Ricchi uses in Washington, but there's entrepreneurship, not sentiment, behind his serious look as we wind our way through traffic.

He's going to have to come back in winter, he's explaining to me. Olives are picked, by hand, starting in November and processed right away. Being there and buying your entire year's worth of oil right then is the way to ensure that you get only those first olives. He gives me a knowing look -- neither Palio nor tortelloni, just one that says he may be a bit homesick for Tuscany, but he's not naive.

Another visit, to Gelateria Baroncini in town, is more pleasure than business. Ricchi's an old soccer mate of Andrea Baroncini, who with his brother Aldo runs the gelato shop. In America, ice cream shops sell ice cream. In Italy, where artisans can earn a nice living by the careful crafting of a single good product, they make it as well. And here, fooling around in the Baroncinis' back room, with just enough space for a couple of big electric mixers and a freezer or two, Andrea and Francesco years ago concocted the perfect rice gelato (it's not that weird -- just think about rice pudding).

Andrea Baroncini has been waiting for us so we can photograph him finishing his strawberry gelato. But he has already broken his eggs for the day. "Too bad," says Ricchi. "He's s-o-o-o fast" -- as anyone who has to break 400 to 500 eggs a day would be. I want to talk about rice gelato, but Ricchi wants to talk about fresh eggs again. I go out front to commune with a $1.25 ice cream cone. The vanilla ice cream's good, though arguably too creamy for those of us who value Italian gelato as being lighter than American ice cream. Good too are the rice, the chocolate, the lemon and the strawberry. And all tasted in the line of duty.

WE'RE RIGHT ABOUT NOT GETTING TO Siena's town square in time to see the Palio, by the way. But we do get to watch the two-minute-long neighborhood-against-neighborhood horse race on TV, standing on tiptoe outside a coffee bar in the Porcupine section of the walled city. Once the race is over, though, it becomes clear that Ricchi's come for something more. We walk quickly to the square to find the winners, from the Giraffe neighborhood, passing defeated Porcupine residents, tears streaming down their faces.

"They work all year on this race," Ricchi explains. "Is hard to lose."

Even here in Siena, Ricchi runs into someone he knows -- a winery representative. He points us toward the winning neighborhood, and we soon find jubilant Giraffe residents cooling down their horse and dousing one another with sparkling wine. Ricchi darts into the neighborhood church as crowds file past the Madonna to thank her for their victory. In the Giraffe hall next door hang prize banners dating from 1865. Each one is decorated with a portrait or a scene characteristic of the era. But where is the banner from today's race?

"They go around now," Ricchi explains. "They show off to the other neighborhoods."

He'd really like to see the banner, but it's getting late. "Come, we go now," he says with a disappointed shrug, and we begin to walk the narrow streets back to the city gate. Then we hear the ancient tattoo. The male drummers are up ahead, walking toward us in their red-and-cream doublets and tights. Their faces are exultant, but also very, very serious. Their triumph over their neighbors links them with the history of their ancient city, with all the traditions of their storied peninsula -- of Ricchi's peninsula.

I turn and watch Ricchi watching them. As the tall, narrow painted banner floats past, he cranes his neck to see it better. His mouth is slightly open, his eyes fixed.

I wish you could see the look on his face.