In an Italian kitchen, Mamma knows best


“Mamma says don’t punch it,” Carlo Montioni says, translating for his mother in heavily accented English.

“You’re always too heavy-handed!” my own mother says, piling on.

“Let me show you,” my daughter Sofia says, sighing and shoving me aside.

PHOTOS: Cooking lessons in Italy

I am in the middle of a cooking lesson in our rented Umbrian villa, and “Mamma,” or Caterina Felici, is trying to save my forsaken kitchen soul. We are making pasta. Apparently, one must not pound on pasta dough because that makes it chewy.

Mamma, tiny, with a creased face and shining eyes, looks every part the Italian mother. She smiles at me encouragingly, the way you smile at a child who writes her letters backward.

Some months ago, my daughters Indigo, 13, and Sofia, 11, who are passionate cooks, suggested we spend a vacation in a place where we could take cooking classes. “I might even grow if you learn to cook better,” said Sofia, the short one.

“The classes sound perfectly horrible, but I might consider Italy,” I replied. And then I put it out of my mind.

Two weeks later, Sofia sat down in my office with a stack of printouts. “I’ve researched, and Parker Villas has great rentals, and they also have cooking classes. And guess what? Mopsie (my mother) and Grandma (my mother-in-law) want to come!”

So it was that last summer, I spent three weeks in Italy, at three villas, in three cooking classes, with three generations of women. It was arranged by Parker Villas, the rental company my prepubescent had found.

When I first called Mario Scalzi, the Italian American owner of Boston-based Parker, he laughed at my plight. I explained that my daughters and their grandmothers were excellent cooks. I was the skipped generation, the lost generation.

“We don’t want hordes of tourists,” I told him. “We want countryside and little towns.”

“How about Tuscany, Umbria and coastal Liguria?”

Mario did us proud. Our first villa was near Montefalco in central Umbria. Miles of sunflowers were in full-faced bloom, and despite the fact that it was July, the nearby towns were calm..

Villa Spago was a six-bedroom stone house surrounded by olive groves and buttery sunlight, and it had a pool. The walls were thick, the light inside filtered to create the effect of a Renaissance painting.

Mamma arrived for our first lesson laden with fresh vegetables, flour, meat, olive oil, garlic and wine. She had bought the vegetables at the morning market, grown the garlic, a friend had made the wine and Carlo had pressed the olive oil. Mamma spoke not a lick of English, so Carlo translated.

“Today, we teach you how to make pasta pomodoro, stuffed peppers, breadcrumb zucchini, mushroom caps, faro salad, turkey and pork over the fire, and for dessert, Pavesini cookies with mascarpone.”

“Is that a normal Umbrian lunch?”

“Of course,” Carlo said, surprised that I was surprised. “This is how Mamma feeds our family every day.” My children stared at me. I avoided eye contact.

Our first task was to knead the pasta dough, and I was an immediate and colossal failure. My mother stood next to me tsk-tsking, and Mamma patted her arm as if to say, “Children don’t always turn out the way we’d hoped.” I moved on to trying to stuff the mushroom caps with garlic, salt, diced mushroom stems, olive oil and parsley. Cecilia, Mamma’s helper, came over and gently removed the knife from my hand to show me how to dice the stems properly. Sofia, on the other hand, was dicing like a Benihana chef.

Although I had dreaded it, the class was in fact loads of fun and filled with raucous laughter, mostly directed at me. But the best part of the day was when we sat down with the Montionis to eat at a long, wooden trestle table in the garden. The food was simple, fresh and spectacular. The pasta was far superior to store-bought, despite my bruising effect.

I may have culinary shortcomings, but I am an accomplished driver; our villa was within a two-hour drive of Spoleto, Orvieto, Todi, Montefalco and Terni, all fantastically well-kept medieval hill towns with great restaurants, linen manufacturers, ceramics shops, wineries, olive groves and Gothic churches.

Every day, we’d cook, shop or discover a new hill town. After a week, we made the three-hour drive to Villa Tramonto in Val di Chiana near Cetona in eastern Tuscany.

Tuscany in the summer is usually jammed with tourists, but Val di Chiana was not. Villa Tramonto was the real Tuscan farmhouse experience. A five-bedroom house, it was set on a hill overlooking the pastoral valley. It had been lived in for generations by the Aggravi family, which now rents the large house to Parker guests.

“In the 1960s, my parents were still tilling with oxen, and there was no electricity or running water out here,” Daniela, the daughter, told me. “In the 1970s, we moved into town for an easier life. In the 1980s, people from outside — Italians and foreigners — started buying up the villas and renovating them. Most of the houses were in ruins, including this one. We renovated ourselves.” Now, Daniela’s mother, Adina Aggravi (Mamma), gives cooking lessons called “Cooking at Mamma’s Tuscan Table.” I began to suspect that any woman over the age of 50 who has borne children becomes “Mamma” to all comers.

Our cooking class took place around a long wooden table at Mamma’s new house in Sarteano, 15 minutes away. Because there’s no traditional Italian meal without pasta, we made pici, a long, hand-rolled variety typical of Siena. She made the dough in a baby bath, a behemoth orb that we all took turns kneading. Then we stood talking and rolling the dough into long, round strings. It was meditative and convivial until it was pointed out that mine were too thin and were breaking. I went outside to pet the dog.

“Now,” Mamma said, calling me back. “We make sauce for the pici. It is very, very easy: garlic, canned tomatoes, chile pepper and salt. Very delicious, very easy. You can do.”

Again, the end was my preferred event — the eating. We all sat at the table and ate the pici with the tomato sauce, the tomato and bread salad, the ciabatta with rosemary and the tiramisu we’d all had a hand in making. On top of the pasta, we grated black truffle, the prized fungi that is hunted in the area.

“You want to go truffle hunting?” Daniela asked us after we expressed interest in the topic. She called Gianni Barzi, an organic farmer in the nearby town of Palazzone who hunts truffles with his dog, Sally, a Lagotto Romagnola a breed whose specialty is truffle-hunting.

“A Russian hunter once offered me $30,000 for Sally,” Gianni told us as we followed her into the woods. “But I could not sell her.” We trailed the dog until she suddenly began to dig under a tree, pulling out an ugly, bumpy black ball and dropping it into Gianni’s hand. Afterward, he invited us to his house to eat the truffles with his own olive oil, some salt and bread his mamma had made. Delightful. One truffle the size of a gum ball can sell for $8.

Before we left for Italy, Parker Villas had sent a list of off-the-beaten-path activities that included a private ceramics painting class in Montefollonico, an elegant hamlet near the better-known cheese- and wine-making town of Montepulciano.

Artist Mariella Spinelli, who had restored a frescoed 12th century chapel to use as her studio, taught the class. We were given a plate and a choice of patterned stencils. I chose a starkly simple two-dove affair. It quickly became apparent that I was also a poor plate painter. “Did you mean to make that dove a crow?” Mariella asked, puzzled. The rest of the family artfully mastered Italianate plates with pomegranates, grape leaves and sunflowers. Despite my persistent lack of talent, sitting in that chapel-studio with Italian classical music playing made for a striking memory. We would return two days later to pick up our fired and glazed plates.

The beauty of central Italy is that the drives are short. Despite a southern detour past the fantastically undiscovered hill town of Pitigliano to visit a regional food market (with the finest cheeses and olives I’ve ever tasted), we hit the coast of Liguria in less than five hours.

Our final villa was the Stella Maris, which clung to a seaside cliff near the Italian Riviera town of Sori, between the large port city of Genoa and Santa Margherita Ligure. With four bedrooms, it was the finest and most expensive of our rentals, a mansion-ette worthy of the Italian glitterati. The bedrooms had doors that opened to overlook the gleaming water, and the interior was decorated with sleek leather furniture and large modern paintings. This was no farmhouse.

There was also no Mamma. This house on the Riviera, a far more populous and urbane area than the countryside of central Italy, had an on-call chef and a house manager who checked in daily. Our cooking instructor, Loredana Benussi, was an elegant polyglot from Genoa. She bustled in with a $1,000 Thermomix machine, a pasta maker, organic vegetables and a sophisticated palate.

“Our Ligurian food is based on the fact that we were historically very poor. Ligurians ate mainly vegetables, oil and leftover bread. We are very thrifty, but we always insist that our vegetables must be ‘just born,’” she told us. “We eat pasta, of course, but unlike you Americans, we never use any pasta with just any sauce. Each type holds a sauce differently. It’s a crime to mix them up.”

Loredana proceeded to teach us how to make a vegetable tart, lasagna with homemade sheets of pasta and pesto, potatoes with olive oil and rosemary, baked pork with juniper berries and tiramisu. My mother, who was more au fait with this kind of cooking, kept adding her own conflicting methodologies under her breath. I stood there with my panic on slow boil. Perhaps I could try replicating the potatoes at home. That one looked easy enough.

Despite my reluctance to make a fool of myself, I did learn a great deal on the trip: You add salt halfway through cooking. You must grind basil, not thump it. Marsala is the best alcohol to use in tiramisu.

But the most valuable lesson was that it can be fun hanging in the kitchen with family and messing around with food. And that the long, large meal, so common in Italy and so rare in America, serves to bring us together under happy circumstances. Even if you are the butt of the family jokes.

PHOTOS: Cooking lessons in Italy