Immerse Yourself in Italian Food Culture at Cooking School was originally published in Otts World.
I still have my career break travels to thank for many things in my life. I basically owe my travel blogging career to my career break, and I also owe a lot of my friendships to it too; friendships that keep giving back to me. You may not know this but 12 years ago as part of my career break travels I took an Italian language and cooking class for a month immersed and living in Sorrento, Italy, with a local family.
Living the Italian Dream
I was sort of trying to test out living the ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ dream. After all, don’t we all have romantic notions about visiting Italy and staying there? While at the language and cooking school I made many new friends with that same romantic love affair with Italy. I remember Tina so distinctly when she arrived at cooking school about halfway through my month of classes. She was a New Yorker in the fashion industry that simply needed to escape for a bit. I immediately had a soul sister in Tina.
When cooking school wrapped up for me, I left the region and moved on to take sailing lessons in Ischia, but Tina stayed. She not only stayed, but she lived out the story that everyone dreams of in Italy; learn to cook, meet a handsome Italian man, learn the language, buy a scooter, live in an Italian villa, and make Italy your home. She also added a couple of additional twists to this Italian fairy tale – the Italian villa isn’t in Tuscany – it’s on the beautiful Amalfi coast! She also added Leo – the son she had with her partner Claudio. And finally, she became an expert on the food of Campania and started her own business that does food tours, she’s writing a cookbook, and she does custom cooking tours and experiences.
Yes – Tina is an Italian overachiever; she is a New Yorker after all. On the other hand, I was sort of an Italian failure; I didn’t pick up any of the language after a month and I still buy Trader Joe's frozen pasta meals. Note: The Trader Joe's frozen pasta meals are really good though.
Returning to Southern Italy and the Amalfi Coast
For the last few years, I sat on the sidelines watching Tina carve out this new Italian life for herself. I drooled over her foodie Instagram account on a regular basis; warning, it will give you hunger pains. We had been in contact a bit about entrepreneur and website stuff, but the day had finally come when I could carve out some time in my schedule to go visit her on the Amalfi Coast and cook again!
Follow Tina’s Instagram for mouth-watering food and a look at what local life in Campania looks like!
In the last decade, she had a family and made so many local contacts in the region, I couldn’t wait to get exposed to her insider expertise! The day I arrived on the train Claudio and Leo picked me up at the train station and took me to their house where Tina had prepared a big lunch of eggplant parmigiana. We sat out on her patio draped in flower trellises with a view of Capri and had an incredible homemade Italian lunch and wine. I felt as if I had walked into the quintessential Italian movie. I knew this week was going to be deadly for the waistline, but oh so much fun!
Transforming Into the Italian I Always Wanted To Be
I stayed with Tina and her family for a week sleeping on their pull out couch. This was my week to soak up as much local Italian culture as I could and try to once again bring my dream Italian life into reality.
My Italian ‘Home’
Tina lives in Massa Lubrense, an adorable little town outside of Sorrento that actually resembles a true town; not one crowded with tourists! This part of the Sorrento coast is hilly and the little roads switchback to homes tucked away in the hills. The roads around the region are the real adventure; narrow, steep, and curvy.
Tina showed me around on her little scooter and I felt like a local as I hung on the back and enjoyed the views. We visited the local farmers market, a mozzarella cheese factory (where I learned how to eat Mozarella di Bufala like a local), and drove down to the beach at Nerano where I tried their famous Spaghetti alla Nerano (fresh zucchini pasta). Everywhere we went was Tina’s community – a group of local people whom she had come to know and learn from. Now she was passing on this knowledge to me.
Pasta Cooking Class in Italy
Tina had made these personal connections in the food world because she has an intense passion for Campania cooking and culture. So much so that she had made a business out of it. She takes guests and immerses them in local Italian living, hands-on cooking lessons, winery and brewery tours, and visits to local food artisans and producers. She believes in seasonal cooking and passing on the Campania cooking traditions to visitors who want to travel deeper into the culture.
When we woke up the next morning and it was rainy and chilly, we decided it was the perfect day to make pasta!
“See how it’s really smooth on top? And you can touch it and it springs back – that’s how you know it’s done, “ Tina explained as I looked at her perfectly smooth kneaded dough. She made it look so easy and effortless, but I was pretty skeptical. I had already failed my cooking class in Italy 12 years ago, what made me think I could do it this time?
As the rain fell outside, we took on homemade tagliatelle and a classic Ragu alla Bolognese sauce. The plan was to watch Tina make the pasta and sauce and then the next day I would do it all on my own. “It’s easy to make fresh pasta,” Tina said with a smile. I looked at her in her flowered apron, hair up, flour on her hands, and admired her transformation from NYC fashion executive to Italian mamma.
I don’t know that I would call it ‘easy’, but I did learn a lot from Tina in her personalized pasta workshop!
As she created little ‘nests’ out of the fresh pasta and put them on a big pan in the window to rest and dry she said, “So you can see you can make fresh pasta in a matter of minutes; make the dough, roll it out, and you have homemade pasta!”
I laughed at how simple she made it all sound. We sat outside and had our late lunch of Tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce. It was delicious, fresh, and the pasta was perfect. I couldn’t believe that she had whipped all of this up so quickly, she did make it seem pretty easy. She had even convinced me that I had the passion and ability to do something similar, and for a moment I thought…wait – maybe I can make fresh pasta like hers!
It’s Time to Get My Hands Dirty
Then the next day it was my turn to take what I had learned and put it to use. I planned to make Ravioli alla Caprese under Tina’s watchful eye…and with the help of a bottle of Rose. This is a specialty pasta dish of the region; cheese-filled ravioli with tomato sauce. However a Ravioli alla Caprese is normally served with pasta made with flour/water, but since I was learning how to make egg noodles – we broke a cardinal Italian food rule – we married the wrong pasta and sauce together. I didn’t think this was any big deal; however, Tina was pretty distraught about it! (See The Rules below)
I went through all of the steps that I learned the day prior with coaching from Tina and even though my kneaded dough wasn’t quite as springy as hers, it was pretty close. As we rolled it out with the pasta maker, I was pretty excited that my ravioli were starting to take shape. She got out her set of pasta cutters and showed me how to make the perfectly round ravioli stuffed with mounds of fresh mozzarella. Regardless of flour vs. egg noodle, I was molto proud of my pretty raviolis when we finished!
The sauce was next. I’m always amazed at how simple Italian sauces really are. The key is about using fresh ingredients and since we had stopped at the farmers market earlier, we had the freshest tomatoes to make the sauce.
Even though we had married the sauce with the wrong type of noodle, I was overjoyed with the overall taste of our lunch! I did it…I made a fresh Italian meal!
Learn The Important Italian Cooking Traditions
Throughout my cooking class in Italy, I learned so many things that surprised me about Italian cooking and pasta that I didn’t know. Tina would throw out these ‘rules’ that I had never heard of before – but she was passionate about passing them along. After all, if you are going to be transformed into an Italian, then you better know the rules.
The Perfect Marriage – Pastas and Sauces
“Typically every pasta shape or cut pasta in Italy is married with a certain traditional sauce. Basically everyone knows that in Italy,” Tina explained.
Clearly I am not Italian nor know the traditions of pasta and sauce marriage. What do you expect, I can’t even seem to get myself married, how am I supposed to marry pasta and sauce? I just get out whatever pasta is in my cupboard in a box and put it with whatever sauce I have.
I’m sorry to tell you that the famous spaghetti Bolognese that you see served all over the world is not a marriage – it should be a divorce. A thick, saucy ragu should be married to a large shell or tubes pasta to capture the sauce, or thicker long pasta, like tagliatelle and pappardelle. This is exactly why we made Tagliatelle alla Bolognese in Tina’s house!
See a complete list of traditional Italian pasta and sauce marriages here.
How to Get the Perfect Flavor and Pasta Texture
You may think that boiling pasta is easy – however, I learned a few new Italian ‘rules’ when it comes to cooking pasta. Always cook your pasta with salt. Italians believe that your water should be as salty as the sea; so be generous with the salt. Cook the pasta in a large pot so it has room to move around. Then, you must take your pasta out of the water before it is done and add it to the sauce. Cook it for 2 more minutes so that it takes on the sauce flavor. Be sure to save a little bit of pasta water and put it in the pasta/sauce mixture if it looks too dry; the starch in the water helps the sauce cling to the pasta.
Sauces and Herbs
“Please go out and gather the bouquet garni from the garden,” Tina said to me.
“Huh? What is that?” I asked.
I learned that it was yet another Italian cooking rule. A bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs tied together with a string and added to Italian sauces. That doesn’t seem that strange since we always add herbs to Italian pasta sauce. However, the big surprise to me was when Tina pulled the bouquet garni out of the sauce before the sauce was served.
“You aren’t going to chop those up and put them in the sauce,” I asked her.
“No, we never leave the herbs in the sauce, you cook the bouquet in the sauce to gently add the flavor and then take it out,” she explained. “Plus, who wants bits of rosemary in their sauce?!”
Great – yet another thing I apparently do wrong I thought!
Want to learn more about Italian food and eating etiquette?
Check out my Italy Food Etiquette tips article.
My transformation into an Italian was nearly complete; I knew how to make pasta, marry pastas and sauces, how to eat an entire ball of mozzarella cheese, how to lounge on the beach, and ride on the back of a scooter! I had even found an Italian lover during my stay! Tina’s big bulldog Ciccio,(meaning the little piggy), had a surprisingly strange attachment to me during my time there. He would scooch up next to me on the couch every night and wouldn’t let anyone else come near me barking madly at anyone who made a move towards me. I had never felt so loved and protected before!
This long-overdue trip back to Italy’s Amalfi Coast for a personal cooking class and lesson in Campania culture ignited my love of Italy all over again. Plus, who needs Under the Tuscan Sun when you have Tina on the Amalfi Coast!
Take Tina’s Custom Tour of Campania and Learn How to Cook Like Local
Get immersed in local Italian living and food culture on Tina’s nine-day Taste of Campania Food and Culture Tour. Experience a beautiful farmhouse setting in the Sorrento countryside and farm (field) to table cooking, visits to local farms, food producers, and artisans…. a true celebration food, farms, and artisans all the while exploring Naples and the must-see attractions.
Follow Sherry Ott @OttsWorld.