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February 07, 2011

From Pizza to Pasta: Get Cooking in Rome

(Kendra Bailey Morris)

It goes without saying that Italy is all about the food. Whether you're downing a big bowl of wild mushroom risotto with a glass of Sanviogese or diving into a pile of fried zeppoles drizzled in chocolate sauce, you can bet your bolognese you're going to eat really, really well in Italy, especially in the Lazio region, including the city of Rome.

Roman cooking, like much of Italy's cuisine in general, is based on simple preparation procedures using the freshest of local ingredients. Spaghetti is tossed with bacon, eggs, and parmesan to make a classic carbonara while bucatini is simply accented with salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and pecorino for "cacio e pepe" (a very simple cheese-and-pepper spaghetti dish). Fresh vegetables, such as eggplant and zucchini are rolled in seasoned breadcrumbs and fried for frittis, and of course, wood-fired pizzas are topped with everything, from hand-pulled buffalo mozzarella to earthy porcini mushrooms.

While some of us food-lovers are more than happy simply to sit down and stuff ourselves silly and let it go at that, other travelers head to this central region of Italy for more in-depth foodie experiences. From classic agritourism and slow food-centric farm stays to week-long culinary immersion vacations complete with off-the-beaten track experiences such as truffle foraging or backstage grappa tastings, travelers come to the area from various part of the world to learn firsthand the innate subtleties that go into creating this ancient and magical cuisine.

There's no better way to dive into a destination and truly "taste" what it has to offer than to take a hands-on cooking class. Here are two custom cooking schools and experiences that are not to be missed when traveling in and around Rome.

Chef Fabio's Fabiolous Cooking Day
Former Roman laywer turned chef, Fabio Bongianni, is best known as the culinary pioneer who brought one of the first and most successful American-styled steakhouses to Rome. Today Chef Fabio offers hands-on cooking classes at his apartment in Rome as well as his vacation retreat located in the medieval commune of Mazzano Romano (circa 945 A.D.) about 40 minutes outside of Rome proper.

Hands-on cooking classes in Mazzano are a unique experience and are heavily focused on the art of making pasta from scratch (one of the chef's specialities) and begin with participants being picked up by Chef Fabio himself from their accomodation in Rome. After a short drive, participants are treated to a couple of market visits where key ingredients are gathered. Depending on the time of year, this might include a quick visit to the butcher to witness homemade sausage making or a jaunt to a local fruit and vegetable stand for fresh blood oranges.

Once all the ingredients are procured, students arrive at the village of Mazzano to get their hands dirty making goodies such as homemade ravioli filled with roasted pumpkin and crushed Amaretti cookies, hand-rolled picci pasta (which is similar to fat spaghetti) tossed in a rich butter sauce accented with local guanciale and fork-tender gnocchi's topped with a rich, beefy wine-infused ragu. Follow Chef Fabio's cooking blog to access a few of these recipes to make at home.

Classes last a couple of hours and culminate with a multi-course meal guaranteed to keep you satiated well into the next day. Students also have the opportunity to stay the night (with prior arrangement) at one of the chef's three villas in Mazzano, which is an experience in and of itself, considering these were built in the 1200s, and while fullly renovated with all the modern amenities, still echo a bygone era accented with stone and terracotta.

Fabiolous Cooking Day rates begin at $100 per person and up.

Nancy Aiello Tours in Rome
Nancy Aiello Tours offers a diverse foodie experience for a wide range and variety of clientele. From hands-on kids' and family cooking classes in a "real Roman kitchen" to custom walking tours, market visits, and wine tastings, Nancy Aiello offers a little of everything tailored to your tastes. San Francisco-bred Aiello came to Rome nearly 31 years ago to study when she met and married her husband Giovanni, and has since been living in the area and running her highly specialized, boutique-style food tours.

For example, if you don't feel like getting covered in flour and are looking for a smaller, more intimate experience, Aiello offers private cooking demonstration dinners that are hosted by local Roman families who prepare multi-course meals based on a client's own specifications as well as seasonality of meats and produce. While your hosts prepare the meal, guests have the opportunity to witness local flavor in action as they sip a little sparkling wine and nibble crostinis. This style of culinary entertainment can be a nice alternative, especially after a full day of touring the local sites.

For those looking to gain some hands-on experience in the kitchen, Nancy Aiello also offers a pizza cooking class, where students will learn how to make classic Roman-style pizzas, calzones, and foccacia bread. Tours and experiences are also tailored to vegetarian cooking and Aiello even has an "Eat, Pray, Love" culinary tour especially designed for the ladies, which follows the dining path of author Elizabeth Gilbert's character from the highly popular book and movie.

Cooking excursions are certainly quite the rage these days, especially in Italy, so the next time you head across the pond, try these cooking classes on for size either for a day, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks.

Nancy Aiello Tours begin at 130 euros ($177) per person for hands-on cooking for up to four guests. Family pizza-making programs for up to six are a flat rate of 590 euros ($802).

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Related Topics: Culinary Travel · European Travel · Food and Drink · Travel Tips · Trip Ideas


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