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Archive for the ‘Cooking Classes’ Category

Recently, I helped Mom (a.k.a. “Marmo”) lead one of her customized tours around Italy.  Mom’s philosophy is a good one:  try to keep the trips to two general areas within an 8-10 day time frame.  If you try to squeeze in too many spots, you’re only going to skim the surface of each area, and you’ll be shifting around too much to relax every once in a while.    The plan for this particular trip was to target (1) the Amalfi Coast and (2) Rome.

Marmo and I fly into Rome then take the train to Naples.  From Naples, we meet our driver, who takes us into Sorrento – a beautiful town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento:  The one and only Excelsior Vittoria Hotel – a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness, complete with palm and lemon trees, beautiful gardens, and the most ridiculous view overlooking the Gulf of Naples towards Mt. Vesuvius.

Spanning six generations (it’s still under the same family ownership), The Excelsior has grown from a beautiful cliff side estate, into a 5-star hotel of dreams.  And for the group’s first day in the Amalfi coast, Marmo arranges a hands on Neapolitan Pizza making demonstration.  For this, I am beyond excited.  Readers of the blog are well aware of our undying infatuation with Pizza.

We are led to a bar around the pool, where there is, indeed, an outdoor brick oven in which wood logs have been burning for about 2 hours in preparation for our class.  Our class is being prepped by the head chef of the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, and a second chef whose name I didn’t get.  They first instruct us as to their method, which is very simple: a 3 hour rise, a little sugar with the yeast, some double zero flour and water.  No overnight rises or complicated gimmicks; it’s very straightforward.  I need to get a closer look to observe the finished product.

And, indeed the dough is softer and fluffier than my freshly shampooed hair.  I had always thought that an overnight rise was essential for that ultra soft feel for pre-cooked pizza dough, but this proved otherwise.  The two man Pizza dream team then instructs us on hand pressing the dough, and lets each of us take a crack at it ourselves.

After the dough is flattened, the sauce is applied, followed by the mozzarella, some grated parmesian, and some olive oil.  It is then transported into the oven, and spun around with some of those extra long pizza peels that I want to decorate my apartment with.

Basil leaves are chopped up and spread onto the pie after it is pulled from the oven, nice and piping hot.  And the final result is wonderful.  The melted mozzarella has a milky, slightly sour, yet fresh tang to it.  The basil supplies a faint, but noticeably minty backdrop.  The cooked dough is beautiful.  Charred on the outside, but chewy and floppy when chomped down upon.  The center of the pie is the way a Neapolitan pie should be: saucy, sloppy, and a tad oily.  Skewering sections of this pie accordion style with my fork is a thing of ease.  Delicious.

The sauce is wonderfully fresh, while the grated parmesan cheese adds a nice, subtle kick not typically included in our New York furnished Neapolitan pies.  Halfway into my pizza, I’m thinking about sneaking Vincenzo and his pizza making sidekick through customs back in Newark so we can dominate the NYC/Neapolitan Pizza scene.  This pie would be easily on par (if not better) with some of well thought of joints in Manhattan.

And with what would be a theme for our stay at the Excelsior, Vicenzo and the rest of the staff could not be nicer.  Everyone got their own apron and chef’s hat, as well as the perfect amount of instruction (neither too much nor too little).  And after an hour or so of being around that oven, what better way to celebrate than to kick back, enjoy a freshly made pizza, some sparkling Pellegrino, a glass of wine, and a view of the Excelsior’s garden of lemon trees?

There is no better way.  Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more tales of my trip to the motherland, or feel free to contact Marmo to create some tales of your own.

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A new year means new beginnings and fresh starts for many.  We are not immune to this trend.  So, after a few months of this blogging thing, we figured we needed to step it up and try our hand at cooking classes.  No, not us doing the actual cooking – although Elana has threatened me to make this a reality quite soon.  Instead, we are kidnapping someone a tad more qualified at the moment: Daniela del Balzo.

Daniela runs her own cooking school in Rome.  I first met Daniela on one of my mother’s culinary excursions throughout Italy, where Daniela took our entire group to the Testaccio Markets to shop for ingredients, and then up into the neighborhoods of Rome into her beautiful home.   Patiently, she spent time with each and every one of us as we prepared the afternoon’s meal.  I had done cooking classes previous to this, but Daniela’s was different.  She creates the perfect balance between hands on instruction and hands off demonstration, which is somewhat important considering everyone eats what they make: personally, my favorite part of the class.  And the meals, while expertly prepared and presented, are simple to make.  I had no problem replicating these dishes upon arriving back home.

If anyone is curious as to how they can participate in a cooking class with Daniela short of flying to Italy, Elana and I have arranged for Daniela to come to Elana’s apartment in Hoboken on the 29th and the 30th of January.  As of now, there are only 3 slots open for the day of the 30th, as the 29th has already been fully booked.  Please contact either Elana or myself if you are interested (john[dot]iaciofano[at]gmail[dot]com or elana[dot]iaciofano[at]gmail[dot]com).  The cost is $150 per person which includes a full meal, dessert and wine for a cooking class of no more than 6 people.  The tentative menu for the 30th is listed below:

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A few weeks ago, John, Marmo and I took a class at the De Gustibus Cooking School which is located on the 8th floor of Macy’s in Herald Square. Because I live in a hole, I had no idea there was a cooking school inside Macy’s! There is, in fact, and a very good one. It’s owned and operated by Salvatore Rizzo who has an impressive history of accomplishments in the culinary world.

As you can see from the graphic above, the class we took was called “Hands On: Pasta Presto” with Gina Stipo. The purpose of the class was to give us an introductory lesson in making fresh pasta along with three different sauces.

First a few words on Gina, our chef. Gina runs a cooking school in Siena (the Tuscany region) Italy, Ecco La Cucina. When teaching, her focus is hands-on so that you can experience the different stages of food preparation and understand how to execute various techniques. True to Italian ways, her meals center around fresh, seasonal produce and quality local ingredients.

Her teaching manner is very approachable and downright fun. The atmosphere was very energetic – we all had a fantastic time. And not just because of the fantastic food and wine (oh yes! there was wine!). But those things certainly helped….

To get us all warmed up, we snacked on some crostini and sipped Prosecco. All four crostini (mushroom, tarragon cream, kale, and Cannellini bean puree) were wonderfully light and flavorful. And kind of rustic…I could almost feel myself transported to a farmhouse in Siena…overlooking some fields of sunflowers….BUT I digress.

After the crostini, we all broke up into small groups to make our own pasta dough. We made enough for three dishes. First up was the Ravioli with Butternut Squash:

Since the pasta will be formed into ravioli, you only need to roll it out into thin sheets, stuff it with your filling (not too much – careful!) and then seal it (a little water does the trick). These little pasta surprises were stuffed with butternut squash puree. The whole thing was topped with a butter and saage sauce that was simple and beautiful. The cheese you see sprinkled on top is Parmesan.

We then moved on to the Spaghetti with Tomato and Ricotta Sauce:

This very simple sauce was a stand-out for me. It may have been the Ricotta cheese mixed in to the tomato sauce (readers of this blog will recall my love for Ricotta cheese). I’m not sure I will ever make a tomato sauce without Ricotta now. It managed to maintain its light and airy quality (cheese can sometimes weigh things down) while still adding a creamy taste and texture that perfectly complemented the tomato puree. Throw some freshly chopped basil on that and you have perfection.

Our last pasta was a Tagliatelle with Duck Ragu and Vin Santo. I really love duck. However, to those of you who are not duck meat lovers, this sauce is not overly gamey-tasting. It’s simmered with other ingredients for quite some time, so the effect is almost like a lighter boeuf bourguignon. The slightly wider and flatter tagliatelle noodle was the perfect pasta vehicle to scoop up this chunkier sauce. My favorite dish of the night.

Salvatore paired each dish with a wine. Here is what we drank:

Caposaldo Prosecco (with the crostini and to get us all warmed up)

Caposaldo Pinot Grigio (with the squash ravioli)

Caposaldo Chianti (with the tomato and ricotta spaghetti and duck ragu tagliatelle)

I don’t usually love Pinot Grigio, but I really liked this one. It had a slightly nutty (like me!) flavor. However, unlike me, I think this flavor was more like almonds.

All of these wines, if you’re interested, are available at Yorkshire Wine and Spirits.

And, finally, if you’d like to buy Gina’s book and make all these wonderful dishes yourself, here is where you can do that.

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