As in most traditional Italian families, life in the Mauriello home revolved around cooking and eating.
By age 10, I was learning to prepare my family's recipes, watching in awe as Mom and Dad flamboyantly tossed spices into a saucepan. As I grew, so did my obsession. I married, raised a child, wrote a cookbook that preserved four generations of my family's recipes, taught Italian cooking and served as a guest chef at small dinner parties.
Still, I didn't feel complete. I needed to broaden my repertoire, improve my technique. I had go to the source. I had to go to a cooking school in Italy.
I found scores of them in nearly every region of Italy, most in Tuscany. But my family is not Tuscan; we're Neapolitan. My father was from Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples, where I still have family, and my grandparents on my mother's side were from Palma Campania, southeast of Naples. Going to Tuscany seemed treasonous. I would have to find a school in southern Italy.
My online research took me to "The Guide to Cooking Schools," which led me to the Mami Camilla Cooking School and Bed and Breakfast, which specializes in Neapolitan and Mediterranean cuisine. It is owned and operated by the Longo family, which holds classes in its home in the Sorrento suburb of Sant' Agnello. Compared with other schools, Mami Camilla seemed to offer more intensive training, flexibility in class schedules and more for my money.
I arrived in Rome on a rainy morning in late April. Two days later, I boarded the EuroStar Italia for the two-hour rail trip to Naples. From there, I caught the Circumvesuviana, a local train that runs between Naples and Sorrento.
It was a 15-minute walk through Sant' Agnello to Mami Camilla, where I was met by Giuseppe, chef Biagio Longo's 26-year-old son, who manages the school. The first thing he said — in fluent English — was "Are you hungry?" There was a generous slice of a vegetable tart left over from lunch.
I wouldn't start classes until the next day, but I was invited to join the students and guests for dinner that night. Meals were served by candlelight at two long rustic tables in a glass-enclosed room that overlooked the garden.
The students had prepared an appetizer of grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil; a pasta course of ravioli stuffed with sautéed artichokes, zucchini and fava beans in a light béchamel sauce; a fish course of fillet of sole; and chocolate soufflé for dessert. The local red wine was served in pitchers that were continually replenished. The chef's daughters, Odilia, 21, and Laura, 14, served each course separately, as is customary in Italy. (After three days of such dinners, I gave up lunch entirely.)
My room was a sparsely furnished cottage, about 11 feet square, graced by a functional bathroom and air conditioning. Yet it felt charming, with a red-and-white print bedspread, matching curtains and a window that looked over the garden.
As I fell asleep that first night, I wondered whether I could handle the workload. In signing up for a two-week intensive, semi-professional program, which included several extra classes in specialty foods, I would be cooking for a minimum of four hours — sometimes as many as seven — every day. There would be no time for day trips by ferry to Capri. No Amalfi coastline drives. No exploring the ruins of Pompeii.
But I would be able to take quick, restorative walks into Sorrento. The next day, I spent a few hours along the main street, the Corso Italia, packed with shops offering trendy, expensive designer goods, hand-painted pottery, inlaid wood and elegant lace table linens, as well as restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. The town center, Piazza Tasso, was usually packed with people, except during the lunch break from 1 to 3 p.m.
Off the piazza were narrow lanes and endless stairs, which led me down to the Marina Piccola. From there I could watch ferries and hydrofoils making runs to Amalfi, Positano and Naples, or the islands of Capri and Ischia.
While tourists were popping in and out of fancy boutiques, I gravitated to the kitchen and cooking stores. There I found nirvana, Italian style: pasta machines, ravioli cutters in various shapes and sizes, espresso makers, oil and vinegar cruets.
When I returned from town, I still had about an hour before my class, so I explored the rustic grounds: more than an acre of slightly terraced land that holds the Longo home, plus three guest buildings and two cottages for up to 56 guests. The buildings are surrounded by gardens, where Longo harvests fruits and vegetables for his classes. Herbs, beans, lettuce and artichokes were ready for picking; rows of tomato plants were showing yellow flowers; and citrus trees were heavy with fruit.
At 4:30 p.m., I reported to the kitchen, a sunny room with white bistro tiles and a white plaster fireplace over which well-worn copper pots hang. The 6- by 8-foot marble island in the center provided ample workspace and was the envy of virtually every student. I was given an apron and introduced to my classmates: Hisa and Makiko, women from Japan who spoke fluent English; and Jill, originally from Boston but living in London.
Chef Longo was an imposing figure — a heavyset man of 6 feet, 4 inches, with large hands that seemed more suited to a construction worker than a chef. But those powerful hands could turn out the most delicate pastas with great speed and flair, and they seemed impervious to oven heat and hot, spattering oil.
Longo has 30 years of culinary experience in Italy, England, Belgium and South America. He opened the first of his three restaurants — two in Sorrento and one in Naples — in 1982. In 2002, at the urging of his wife, Camilla, he left the restaurant business to open the cooking school, which he named in her honor.
Just like nonna used to make
A Neapolitan American chef eager to expand her repertoire goes back to the source and learns a thing or two at a Sorrento school.
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