No question, my mother would have been mighty proud last winter to see me receive my diploma from La Scuola del Pettirosso cooking school in Spoltore.
After all, she had been trying to teach me to cook since I was a child, but I was always too busy, with friends and school and college. And why should I have cared about learning to cook, with a large Italian-American family (the "C." in my name stands for Campagna). Mother, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles were stirring and tasting, kneeding and sauteing, not only on a "Big Night" such as Christmas Eve but every day.A lot has changed since I grew up. Howdy Doody is off the air. Italian restaurants serve pasta without red sauce. Cooking is now my personal passion and (even mom still can't believe it), and I am the proprietor of a seasonal restaurant, Andiamo in South Chatham.
So it seemed perfectly natural last February that I travel to my ancestral homeland to invest in my culinary avocation and go to cooking school. David James Barrett, the chef who manages my summer kitchen, also signed up. Together, we would be tutored in regional Italian cuisine under Italian master chef Angelo Chiavaroli at his Pettirosso Cooking School in the tiny hill town of Spoltore. And to our delight, even in winter, the rural hillside setting was a luscious green, mixed ever so gently with white and the snow-capped Gran Sasso mountains, which at 10,000 feet dominate Abruzzo and most of central Italy. Just two hours east of Rome, Abruzzo is a beautiful and undiscovered region of Italy. It's worth a visit - cooking school or not.
But you don't have to be in the restaurant business to spice up your Italian vacation. Chiavaroli has designed the school for the home cook who delights in gourmet food and wine, has some culinary skills, and is ready to combine traveling and learning. The school is a most savory immersion into the heart of Italian culture: gastronomy.
For me, the best ingredients of a learning vacation (a few years ago, I traveled to the Caribbean to study fiction writing), are these: excellent accommodations, tasty and healthy cuisine, inspired instruction in the chosen subject, gaining inside knowledge, and camaraderie with the other participants.
La Scuola del Pettirosso offered all this, accompanied by Italian hospitality. And there was the artistic expression we've come to expect from this culture: Gourmet cuisine must not only taste good, it must be beautiful, a work of art to admire before devouring. This is the only trip to Italy where I returned with almost as many pictures of food as anything else. Angelo's kitchen is a living food museum filled with exotic but traditional products from Abruzzo: lemons, oranges, and tangerines; 28 varieties of truffles; broccoli rabe; rabbit, quail and fish; gnocchi with guinea-hen ragout.
Rooms at the Hotel Montinope, a four-star hotel and home to the Pettirosso restaurant and cooking school, were well appointed. The dramatic view of the Abruzzo landscape from my window greeted me each morning. My bed was oversized and very comfortable. Little food fairies kept a basket of fresh fruit filled and a small refrigerator stocked with cold San Pellegrino mineral waters, "succo d'arancia" and other treats. Other amenities were cable TV, fluffy heated towels, and modern baths with hair dryers. I found the Montinope charming and very Italian, with its white walls and shiny marble floors and, everywhere, vases overflowing with flowers.
Also, staying at the school made it easy to unwind in my room before the evening meal, or to sleep in and not be late for morning classes. The one major change I would make in planning is not to come to Italy only to attend the cooking school. As many days as you can tag on to your trip before and after the cooking school is advised for travelers who need down time.
The six-day program at the Pettirosso costs just under $2,000, double occupancy, air fare not included. A non-cooking partner may attend for $1,750. Besides accommodations, the fee includes three meals a day, three field trips, personalized instruction in classes limited to 14 (there were 12 in our group), transportation to and from Rome, a support van, the services of a tour guide, an apron and a chef's hat, and that prized diploma. We were delighted to have Luigi, a genial Italian tour leader and wine sommelier, organize our day trips and our daily lessons on pairing food and wine.
Days were like scenes from Italian movies, where cooking is portrayed as a metaphor for life. The chef's teaching combined excursions to the local market with lessons in how to choose the freshest ingredients. Recipes matter, yes, but in Italy the freshness of the food is what counts most, Chiavaroli told us the day we strolled the outdoor markets in nearby Chieti. Later, as we poked around the fish market, he joked: "If it's still moving it's alive." Shopping for food with Angelo was as much fun as cooking it, especially because everywhere we went someone recognized him. If Julia Child is America's most popular chef, then Angelo Chiavaroli belongs to Abruzzo.
Again, though it was the dead of winter, Abruzzo showed off its magical Mediterranean location. Markets overflowed with fresh herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Touring Abruzzo is a daily explosion for the senses: the smell of wild "rosmarino" growing freely outdoors; land slopes covered with vineyards and silvery olive groves, the sound of the chickens cackling from stone farm buildings with red tile roofs.
Our mornings were reserved for classes in a particular culinary subject. What would an Italian cooking school be without instruction on hand- and machine-rolling of pasta dough, stuffing a pig, squeezing black ink from squid sacs for use in our tri-color ravioli recipe. We had sessions on meats and fish (a speciality in Abruzzo because of its location on the Adriatic Sea); classes on how to make classic Italian desserts, such as "panna cotta in salsa di lamponi" (cooked cream with raspberry sauce) and fruit tarts. All the while, Chiavoroli demonstrated methods and procedures, while Anna, a translator and culinary school graduate, put his lessons into English. Often, our morning efforts appeared on the noontime table where we met for feasts characterized by "abun-dan-za" (abundance) and "amici" (friends).
And while the eating was wonderful, most of us agreed that the best part of this cooking school was the actual work in the kitchen. As soon as I felt comfortable enough in the spectacular, state-of-the-art kitchen at the Montinope, I offered to peel the onions, chop the tomatoes, stir the risotto, or sprinkle a finished dish with parsley flakes, which Italians put on just about everything.
Chef Chiavaroli - a chubby, energetic, 50ish man sporting shoulder-length black hair and a receding hairline - did what a good teacher ought to do - he exposed us to professionals in the field. We met and cooked alongside his professional staff: chefs, sous chefs, bread bakers, pastry chefs, pasta rollers and butchers. One afternoon, a tableware artisan led a session on floral arrangements for the table. The intensity with which all the Montinope staff worked amazed our group. The kitchen staff tended to all details at each step of meal preparation, from accepting food orders in the morning to making sure all the dishes were washed at night. We all agreed: The chance to work alongside Chaivoroli and his team made the learning so much more personal and effective.
Along the way, we collected recipes by word of mouth - the way my mother often gives them and the way so many recipes in Italy are handed down. We were promised a copy of Chiavarolo's cookbook when it is published in the fall. Already my mouth is watering for the secrets of his signature dishes: "bucatini alla matriciana" (thick, round, long spaghetti with a spicy tomato and onion sauce) and "grigliata mista" (mixed grill of shrimp, calamari, sole and red mullet).
Our mornings began with breakfast - "la prima colazione" - served continental style in the hotel's bar/cafe. We supplemented freshly squeezed orange juice and foamy brown and white cappuccino with a dazzling display of pastries, cheeses, fruits and grains. Lunch, or "pranzo," was served around noon, and dinner - "la cena" - started around 7:30 p.m. with a before dinner aperitivo and antipasti taken at the bar.
By the end of the week, I wasn't the only participant running up and down the three flights of stairs at the Montinope hoping to lose some of those newly added pounds.
On the upside, the experience temporarily cured my wanderlust. I was simply too full to leave Abruzzo for another place.
Midday field trips added to our culinary adventure. They were to places that make specialities in Italian cuisine - extra-virgin olive oil, pasta and wine. One day we toured the Cerasuolo Winery in Bolognano, where grapes are vacuum-pressed and then fermented in special stainless steel vats with automatic temperature controls, bottled and packaged. The vineyard's 172 acres produce a half-million bottles of wine a year, a white Trebbiano and a red Montepulcianno wine for which Abruzzo is famous.
Another day we traveled uphill to Fara San Martino, an Abruzzo village that specializes in making pasta, to tour the DeCecco factory, one of 2,000 pasta-making companies in Italy. "We're not the oldest, but we're the best," said our tour guide in DeCecco, founded in 1887, and known for making more than 100 kinds of pasta.
Everywhere we looked in the sprawling plant, we saw pasta. There are great big machines that mix semonole flour and water and then cut the pasta to dry it for 18-40 hours, depending on the type of macaroni. Spaghetti here, orecchiette there, shells, penne, fusilli and more. As we toured the plant, David and I quizzed each other on our pasta knowledge. We could name a mere 20 types.
Learning culinary secrets from one of Italy's master chefs by day, indulging in wining and dining at night, combining cooking activities with a first-class food and hotel package - those are what a cooking-school vacation is all about. The diploma? Why that was just the icing on the cake, that piece of paper to make my mother proud.
If you go
You can travel to Italy to observe the fine Italian art of glassblowing. Or violin making or clothing design. Or you can get to the heart of the matter and plan a trip to Italy to learn more about the most important piece of Italian culture - cooking. From rural villas in Tuscany to apartments in Venice, Italy is home to several cooking schools. Here is a sampling of what's available.
- La Scuola Pettirosso, 1998 Cooking School Program; several (six-day) courses through fall; $1,995 per person; $1,750 for non-cooking partner; includes accommodations, meals and side trips, excludes air fare. For information write Parker Company, 319 Lynnway, Lynn MA 01901-1810; or call 1-800-280-2811.
- Gastronomic Odysseys with Burton Anderson sponsors two six-day Italian cooking vacations - Treasures of the Mediterranean Table (focusing on the southern cuisine of Naples and Amalfi, like fish, pizza, buffalo mozzarella and southern pastries) and Treasures of the Northern Italian Table concentrating on the foods of Piedmont (truffles), Parma (aged Parmigiano cheese), Emilia (balsamic vinegars), Tuscany (risotto) and Chianti wine country. Tours are scheduled from late April through December. Cost is $4,550 per person, including accommodations, all meals, staff tips, and side trips to tastings and demonstrations. For a brochure, write Hamilton Fitzjames, Suite 1158, 1011 Upper Middle Road E, Oakville, ON, Canada, L6H5Z9; telephone 1-800-801-6147.
- The International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine of Bologna, Italy, named by Bon Appetit magazine as the best cooking class vacation in Italy. A (six-day) basic course of Great Italian Cooking is offered in May, June, September and October; the (seven-day) October Truffle Festival combines cooking classes in Bologna with the truffle festival in Piedmont. Fees cover hotel, double occupancy, cooking classes, most meals, side transportation and excursions, excludes air fare. Basics costs $3,200-$3,600 depending on hotel choice; Truffles costs $3,600-$3,800, depending on hotel. For information write to Mary Beth Clark, The International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine, 201 East 28 St., Suite 15 B, New York, NY 10016-8538; telephone 212-779-1921.
- Cucina Casalinga, 171 Drum Hill Rd., Wilton, CT 06897, arranges culinary and cultural tours of Venice and the Lake Country, Sicily and Abruzzo. Owner Sally Maraventano, cookbook author and cooking instructor, was a member of my group at La Scuola Pettirosso and she is organizing a fall trip for Oct. 10-17. For more information call 203-762-0768.