Cooking Lessons in Italy
Mamma Knows Best
By Amy E. Robertson
Traveler Contributing Editor
Resources updated 3/20/2019 by Transitions Abroad
|Some of the fresh ingredients
used to prepare a home cooked Italian meal. (Photo
courtesy of Cucina
I was nervous the first time I met my
mother-in-law. She was no ordinary mom; she was an Italian mamma.
My husband and I had already been dating for a year, and
instead of returning to his home country of Italy to settle
down, I was stealing her first-born son away to live with
me in New York City. She wasn’t comfortable in English;
I barely spoke Italian. And that was just the beginning.
She is a scientist; I am a writer. She
is a homebody; I am an adventurer. She is skeptical; I am
gullible. She is Catholic; I am (gasp!) Protestant. Even
physically, I didn’t fit in: at 5’8” (172cm)
I towered over Mamma, and I nearly knocked her
down the first time I hugged her hello.
Luckily for me, there was food.
I was young and hungry. When we sat
at the table, I ate heartily and accepted seconds. She may
have been surprised to see a nice young lady eat quite so
much, but as a quintessential Italian mamma, her
heart was warmed by my appreciation of her delicious home
She accepted the marriage. I got better
at speaking Italian. We traded recipes, although nothing
ever came out for me quite like when Mamma made
it. My husband and I had two kids, and her title changed
from mamma to nonna (grandma). She became
more determined to ensure I learn her cooking secrets. The
only way to do so was to invite me into her kitchen.
“The next time I make meatballs,
you will make them with me,” she informed me. “I
don’t measure; it is based ad occhio,”—literally ‘by
the eye,’ or how the food looks and feels. We mixed
ground beef, bread crumbs, milk, salt and parmesan, I observed
the color and the feel of the meat. I took copious notes.
I went back home and made meatballs for the kids.
“Pretty good,” the kids
“Not as good as Nonna’s,
but pretty good.”
I’ll take it.
I shared this essay with my mother-in-law,
who had the following feedback: “Add that I welcomed
with joy the news of your decision to get married.” Awww.
“And add an egg to the list of
ingredients for the meatballs.” Whoops! I didn’t
forget the egg when I made the meatballs, I promise! Ground
beef, bread crumbs, milk, salt, parmesan, and egg.
|The author’s replication
of Nonna’s meatballs, ready to be cooked.
(Photo by Amy E. Robertson.)
Getting into the kitchen is a fantastic
way to connect with Italians. For those of you who don’t
have your own Italian mamma or nonna,
here are cooking classes around Italy where you can learn
the secrets of their food. As you might expect, many of
these mammas and nonnas welcome children
in their classes as well.
Agata — Ravello (Salerno/Amalfi
A meal at Mamma Agata’s is a family
affair. Mamma is head chef, her daughter Chiara
is translator and guide, and Chiara’s husband Gennaro
(who learned to cook at the side of his own mamma)
is the sous chef. Mamma Agata and Gennaro have both cooked
for celebrities—Liz Taylor, Federico Fellini, Jacqueline
Kennedy, Pierce Brosnan, and Woody Harrelson, just to name
a few. The family has even written a cookbook,
but if you want to know the secrets behind Mamma’s
eggplant parmigiana, pappardelle pasta, and lemon cake,
you must come learn firsthand. Homemade, organic products
such as pasta, olive oil, and dried herbs are available
for purchase on the site, making it easier to recreate the
flavors once you’re back home. Maximum group size
is 14, and private lessons can also be arranged.
Duration: 6 to 7 hours
including the lunch
Price: €230 to €290 per person depending
on the season.
|Gennaro, Chiara, and Mamma Agata
in the kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Mamma
Isa — Padua (near Venice
in the Veneto region)
Mama Isa learned how to make traditional
Italian dishes from her own nonna Elsa and her mamma Paola,
and she is enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge with
others. There is truly something for everyone with more
than 25 class options: vegetarian and vegan, special dietary
requirements (including kosher and halal as well as allergies
and intolerances), romantic, organic, pizza-making, a master
class on pasta, and more. Maximum group size is 8-10, depending
on the class.
Padua is half an hour from Venice or
Verona and easy to reach (Mama Isa can provide detailed
instructions for public transportation), as well as a destination
in its own right, particularly for art and architecture.
Duration: 4 hours plus
the meal. Lunch or dinner. Full day and multi-day classes
available as well.
Price: depends on the class, but starting
at €120 per person.
|Bigoli, a 17th-century pasta
originating in the Veneto region, is one of the pastas
taught by Mama Isa. (Photos courtesy of Mama
Bini — Florence (Tuscany)
Proud mother of two and grandmother
of six, Anna will turn 85 in July but refuses to let age
slow her down. After a long career working in the fashion
industry in France, Anna opened an Italian restaurant in
Paris, Casa Bini, then co-authored two books about traveling
and eating in Italy. Passing Casa Bini into the capable
hands of her son, Anna returned to Florence and at the age
of 83 opened her cooking school. Truly a day in the life
of an Italian nonna, the class starts with a market
visit and stroll through the center of Florence, then Anna
teaches her guests how to make both flat and stuffed pasta,
such as tagliatelle, pappardelle, ravioli, cappelletti,
and tortellini. Sauces are next, with instruction on which
kinds of sauces go with different types of pasta: “Every
pasta has its sauce, and every sauce has its pasta.” Of
course, the class is capped by a meal, which includes an aperitivo,
a tasting of the pasta, and a full lunch accompanied by
Anna is happy to try and accommodate
special requests on food and timing, and can also conduct
the class in multiple languages. Group size is minimum two,
Duration: 6 hours.
Price: €120 to €130 per person, depending
on the number of participants.
Anna Bini takes her students
to the market to shop for ingredients. (Photo courtesy
in Masseria — Mola (near
Chef Rita offers cooking classes every
weekday, inspired by the recipes of her own Nonna Rita,
her great-aunt Nina, their mother Angelina, and their grandmother
Ritella – four generations of Italian home cooks. “I
consider myself one of the last ‘Mammas’ or ‘Nonnas,’” says
Rita, because now even the nonnas have no time
to share with their girls the secrets and the traditional
dishes.” Her full-day class includes a visit to the
morning market, a lunch made together as a group, an afternoon
boat ride to buy fish, then dinner made from the early purchases.
The emphasis is on regional recipes, and accommodations
can be made for dietary preferences/restrictions.
The masseria, or farm, has
five rooms and suites available, no cooking class required.
Those who are as passionate about cooking as Rita can sign
up for multi-day cooking courses.
Duration: all day (9
a.m. through dinner).
Price: €150 per person for a group of at
|Chef Rita demonstrates how to
make cavatelli the way her nonna did.
(Photo courtesy of Cucina
E. Robertson is the
author of Volunteer
Vacations in Latin America (2013, Moon
Handbooks). Her writing has been published
on NPR, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel, Delta
Sky, National Geographic Traveler, Wall Street
Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Travel
+ Leisure, among others. Amy has lived in
six countries and traveled in more than 60.
Her volunteer experiences include building
houses in Washington State and Honduras,
monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador,
working with youth on social documentaries
in Bolivia, and serving lunch at soup kitchens
in Seattle and Beirut. She has a background
in international development and nonprofit
management and has worked in both the private
and nonprofit sectors.
You may see Amy's many
articles for us, her numerous books, and her
expanded bio page here.