Everyone wants to come home from vacation with a souvenir. The type of souvenirs change throughout your life; as a teenager you're apt to be wearing a foreign language Budweiser or Coca-Cola logo-ed t-shirt for a few years, as a twenty something, most likely you'll have some sort of knick-knack collection (I still have a "Cleveland Rocks!" shot glass somewhere in the annals of my packed up kitchen boxes), and now, you FedEx Moroccan hand-stitched rugs to your house to be a "statement piece" to revolve the room around. But what if you could bring home a skill from your travels? What if your exposures to other cultures and activities could translate into experiences in the future? Can you take the vacation home with you?
When we learned that my Mom was going to meet us in the Eternal City, we thought that the opportunity to learn from a real Italian chef the true way to make pasta and cook Italian with our own two hands might actually change the way that we cook once we return to the States. We hoped to have a real life version of one of those Food Network shows where Bobby Flay teaches you how to become a better cook, with less yelling, more mother-son-daughter-in-law bonding, and much, much more Prosecco, and that's exactly what we received.
The first thing I learned when we arrived was the fact that our class was being split into two, as there were too many students, and Walks Of Italy tries to keep their groups to under a dozen. Once we were sorted, we climbed the stairs to the top floor apartment (Mom would not be happy if I didn't at least mention the stairs, as they were the classic European stairs, slick and steep, certainly not a welcome sight after a full day of sightseeing around Rome) and to the shaded garden where we would be turning simple ingredients into delicious pasta. It was truly a beautiful environment, in the shadow of the Basilica di Sant'Agnese In Agone, surrounded by rooftops with Romans going about their evening business, hanging laundry and enjoying Aperitivo as the sun set around us.
Speaking of aperitivo, our two teachers/chefs had prepared traditional appetizers for us (Prosciutto & Melon, Bruschetta) which we were able to enjoy with glasses of Prosecco (GRIPE TIME: I felt like we could have had our glasses filled more consistently with delicious delicious Prosecco while we worked, although I am a borderline alcoholic, so keep that in mind whilst deciding whether this gripe is well-founded or I just take a million glasses of wine to get drunk) while we chose our stations. We then donned our aprons and got down to the main event.
Not only were we making spaghetti alla chitarra (spaghetti made with a "Guitar Pasta Cutter"), but we would be making ravioli, which made me incredibly nervous. I was looking forward to having a delicious meal, not trying to salvage a bunch of exploded, malformed ravioli from the bottom of a boiling pot. Luckily, the instruction we received was informative and easy to follow, and I actually feel like I could replicate the steps to turn flour and egg into spaghetti and ravioli I could put in my face at home. I'm not going to bore you with the exact details, but rest assured that I put an egg into a volcano, and then covered it in flour to make a mountain. Not only that, but the phrase Push-Turn-Flip will never mean the same thing again. I'm basically Mario Batali, and I've already added a Pasta Guitar, Ravioli Cutter, and Pasta Making Attachment to my Amazon wishlist.
One of my favorite things about the class was the fact that one of the sauces we learned to make changed from Butter & Sage, which they usually teach, to Pomodorini, a very simple tomato-based sauce, because "the tomatoes looked so good today at the market, I couldn't resist." That's the hallmark of Italian cooking, using only the freshest ingredients, and turning something simple (the ingredients for the sauce: tomatoes, basil, garlic) into a flavorful and healthy sauce that jumped off the plate and delighted the taste buds. It was served with out expertly-made (kind of?) ravioli and was absolutely delicious. The fact that we had made it ourselves was even better.
We also made a traditional Roman sauce to go with our spaghetti; the all'amatriciana sauce uses pork cheek (it was very popular in early Rome because it was easy to store and kept for a long time) as it's main ingredient, and is another example of a sauce which uses only fresh, simple ingredients (literally they are tomato, pork cheek, olive oil, and pecorino romano) and when prepared correctly, make for a delicious combination. Was I disappointed we were not learning the more nuanced and (in my opinion) more mouth-watering cacio e pepe sauce? For sure. When I asked the chef, she said that it is one of the easiest dishes to cook, but one of the hardest to get right (I brought up the urban legend of how Gordon Ramsey has his students cook omelettes for him, as they are one of the hardest dishes to perfect, and she nodded at me like I was a crazy person. Now that I think about it, maybe they did serve enough prosecco), so they don't try to teach it. But the spaghetti all'amatriciana which made it's way to our plates was so delicious I didn't mind at all.
One of the best parts about taking cooking classes is not having to do the dirty work associated with cooking. We made two delicious pasta dishes from scratch, and didn't have to clean up afterwards. We didn't have to measure out 100g of flour before we began, nor did we have to mop up the egg I dropped on the floor (this is probably confirmation that I did receive enough prosecco). The tomatoes for our sauce were magically pre-diced and the water was somehow already boiling when the pasta needed to be cooked. It actually did feel like being on a Food Network show, I was a not-as-smarmy Bobby Flay, Renee was Giada with smaller teeth, and my Mom was the Barefoot Contessa, but less pretentious.
At the end of the day, the reason we travel is for the memories. But when you can take home a souvenir you know you'll be able to have for the rest of your life, you want to gather as many of those as possible. For us, it was the knowledge to make pasta the true Italian way, and we have Walks Of Italy to thank, but if you think I'm going to give up my shot glass that says "Legalize Marinara", you should fuggehdaboutit.