I am not Italian. I do not spend my holidays eating boatloads of food and watching my family chat boisterously with their hands. I do not know much Italian. I do not have the characteristic bronzed skin during the winter. At best, I go out to an Italian restaurant and enjoy what I perceive to be true Italian food while my pale family talks without quite as much zeal.
Although most of the perceptions of Italians are no more than perceptions, I do have a handful of friends of Italian ancestry who have told me of the elaborate dinners they still enjoy. Every bit of me wishes I had aunts who would teach me how to make cookies and pastries and a nonna who would show me how to make fresh pasta.
So, naturally, I felt it necessary to take a cooking class in Italy. By a fluke, after booking an Airbnb, I came across an advertisement for Trip4real, a website that hooks up tourists with locals giving private tours. After a couple of searches I found Michele, and so began the most Italian day of my life (and the best day of my trip).
Michele’s class was a full day excursion in the countryside of Rome that included a private cooking lesson in his home, tours of the local area, a visit to two huge wine cellars and stops at local shops. We all started off the day at Michele’s learning to make three different types of pasta and a focaccia.
Fresh egg fettuccine with a pumpkin sauce spiced with mint and nutmeg
Gnocchi (potato pasta) with pesto
Ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a tomato sauce with lemon zest
Making pasta is an escape for the mind. All it takes is some specialty flour, salt and the addition of egg, water or potatoes. You stand working the ingredients together, rolling them out to into a finer dough. Afterwards you cut, roll or stuff as you please and cook them in a big pot of boiling water. Granted, the process takes time and I am leaving out details, but I was extremely surprised by the simplicity. Time passed quicker than I could have imagined as we talked and worked our dough. Even the sauces were simple. Apart from a oil, a bit of salt and a few other spices, all of the ingredients listed above were all that were necessary for great sauces. That’s right people, NO GARLIC WAS USED IN THE MAKING OF THIS PASTA. Contrary to popular belief, it is not quite as omnipotent in the Italian kitchen as we think.
Not to be a total foodie, but the local ingredients and homemade dishes made huge differences. Never have I tasted such simple dishes with such dynamic flavors. I have heard that Italians take their food very seriously, but I never understood the precision of all their choices. Michele explained to us that heavier pastas need to be paired with thicker, more complex sauces because they can deliver the flavor better. White wine, we learned, goes best with the fresh flavors of pumpkin and pesto while a red is wonderful with ravioli. Lemon wakes up your taste buds to better appreciate the rich taste of Italian tomatoes.
After we were far too full, Michele wrapped us up the leftovers and we set off to explore the region. The area we were in was full of tiny towns set in the mountains and overlooking huge lakes. We stopped by a 150 year-old restaurant that Michele had once worked at and toured a wine cellar with over 15,000 bottles (some valued at over $5,000 per bottle). A new restaurant welcomed us in and let us taste their newest cheese shipment and peppers stuffed with tuna. We dropped into a traditional bakery to see their huge wood burning oven. The women there happily handed us warm, chocolate biscotti. I did not even like biscotti, but how do you say no to a kind Italian woman and all her daughters? Needless to say I ended up changing my mind and bought a bag.
Overall, the day was wonderful and made me feel like I had actually experience Italy, its wonderful people and its food. There is no doubt that, if I return to Italy, I will stop by Michele’s for another class.