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.)
Exploring SorrentoMy 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.
In our first class, we four students would prepare soufflé di cavolo (soufflé with cauliflower, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and grated Parmesan and Swiss cheeses); orecchiette alla leccese (ear-shaped pasta served in a sauce of garlic, anchovies and broccoli); calamari alla scarola (squid stuffed with escarole, mushrooms, raisins and pine nuts, cooked in white wine); and maddalene (a buttery cookie) served with fruit.
We began with the pasta, carefully mixing flour and water to make the dough and rolling it into long, round lengths. It was like playing with clay. We tried to imitate the chef's technique.
"Look what I do," he would say, flipping a small piece of pasta off his thumb to create the desired shape. "Do you understand?" We nodded. "Go."
When we performed to his satisfaction, we were rewarded with a "Brava!"Another reward for our efforts in the kitchen was the evening meal. Not only were the repasts we made wonderful but the conversation was lively — not one mention of politics, the war in Iraq, terrorism or the economy. During my stay, Mami Camilla hosted guests from Japan, Australia, France, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, South Africa, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada and the U.S.
A 95-proof mistakeWhen you're not familiar with a kitchen, mistakes are bound to happen. I made one during one of my specialty classes, where I learned to make limoncello, the liqueur of Sorrento.
I reported to the kitchen, donned my apron and waited for Longo. I reached for the ever-present bottle of mineral water on the counter and poured myself a glass. One big gulp, and I knew I was in trouble. This was not water but 95-proof grain alcohol.
My mouth and throat were on fire, my gums vibrating. I rushed to the refrigerator, found a real bottle of water and slugged it down as fast as I could. When Longo arrived, I told him what had happened.
"Oh no!" he exclaimed, explaining that he used an empty water bottle to measure out the liter of alcohol used to make the luscious lemony limoncello.
Then Longo handed me a plastic bag and we headed to the garden to pick lemons. We needed about two dozen to flavor the alcohol. Together, we peeled the lemons and boiled sugar and water to make syrup. When the syrup was cool, we combined the lemon, syrup and alcohol, poured it into a tall bottle and set it to rest on the counter for six days. It was ready in time to share with my fellow guests on my last night.
Pizza secretsYou can't go to an Italian cooking school and not make pizza. We would bake ours in a wood-burning oven, which Longo had packed with kindling and tree branches. "When the roof of the oven is white, it's ready," he explained. It took about an hour.
While we waited, he showed us the correct technique for "rolling out" the dough, except we didn't roll it. We used our fingertips to push it into shape, turning it over several times as we worked. Then it got tricky. Ever so gently and without tearing the dough, we were instructed to lift it and rotate it over the backs of our hands, gently stretching it to its final size. One by one we made our pizzas — some shaped better than others.
Longo then explained the technique for placing the pizza in the oven and getting it off the long-handled, shovel-like peel without disturbing the topping. "Watch," he said. "Lay the peel at an angle, like this. Then pull the peel back a little at a time. Never back and forth."
As the pizzas were pulled from the oven, we topped them with sprigs of fresh basil, and on a sunny patio we ate them and drank beer.
Fish and seafood are staples in southern Italian cuisine, and we prepared several varieties: sole, swordfish, bass, shrimp, calamari and octopus.
I've never been particularly squeamish about any type of food, but as Longo lifted three octopuses from boiling water and handed them to me, I had visions from the 1954 movie "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" of sea monsters attacking submarines. I was instructed to cut the tentacles in half-inch pieces and slice the head into strips.
"I can do this" became my mantra. Once I became accustomed to what seemed like thick, heavy rubber bands with plungers, I was able to overcome my fears. And, of course, later I had no trouble eating the wonderful marinated salad the octopuses had become.
After a few days at Mami Camilla, I felt as though I were home. Its sounds, rhythms and smells transported me back to my parents' home in the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up. Familiar Neapolitan expressions rang through the house and awakened the corner of my brain where my childhood memories were stored. I began to understand more and more Italian phrases, smiling at their familiarity.
"Capito?" Understood? Camilla Longo would ask. "Sì," came my reply, which was met with smiles.
I was accepted so fully that I was handed the phone to talk to English-speaking callers if Giuseppe or his assistant were out of the office.
At the end of my two-week stay, I was physically exhausted but emotionally exhilarated. The trip had satisfied my obsession; I came home with 60 new recipes and a cadre of new friends.
But new hungers have appeared.
All I want to do these days is cook or plan the menus I'm going to cook. I find myself looking at my watch, cal- culating the time in Sorrento, wondering what students will be preparing for dinner that evening. I've already bought my ticket to return in May to Mami Camilla.
Marjorie Mauriello Baker's website is http://www.myneapolitankitchen.com .*
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Cooking by the sea
From LAX, Delta, American, Continental, Northwest, British, Aer Lingus, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and US Airways have connecting service (change of plane) to Rome. Restricted round-trip fares are $898 until Nov. 1, $548 Nov. 1-Dec. 12.
Mami Camilla, 4 Via Cocumella, Sant' Agnello di Sorrento, 80065, Naples, Italy; 011-39-081-878-20-67, http://www.mamicamilla.com . The school has custom, flexible cooking classes, from single classes to monthlong courses with internships in local restaurants. It also offers escorted trips to local olive-oil and cheese factories and a winery, as well as half-day trips to Naples and other surrounding cities and the island of Capri. The school also functions as a restaurant, giving students the opportunity to experience cooking at a professional level. I paid $1,789 for my intensive two-week course, room, breakfast, dinner and cooking classes. (Prices may vary depending upon season.) You may also book private classes with the chef for $174. One-day group sessions are $125.
For non-cooking guests: Mami Camilla also has clean, simple accommodations for guests who are not cooking; doubles $87. Evening meals are included in course fees, but for $19, non-cooking guests and tourists can enjoy a four-course meal, including all the wine you can drink and the traditional after-dinner drink, limoncello. Reservations must be made by 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m. seating.
TO LEARN MORE:
"The Guide to Cooking Schools," $24.95, ShawGuides; (212) 799-6464, http://www.shawguides.com .
Sorrento/Sant' Agnello tourist information: 011-39-081-8074033, http://www.sorrentotourism.com .