A food enthusiast travels to Italy to attend a week-long pasta class to perfect her skills and learn the closely guarded secrets of Italian grandmothers.
Article by Julie Seyler
Two chefs adeptly fold pasta as my classmates and I huddle around the demonstration table. Emulating the chefs’ technique, I balance a round of dough dolloped with potato filling over fingers curled into a horizontal “C” shape – we’re learning to prepare curligiones, a rich Sardinian ravioli, intricately pleated and filled with potato, pecorino and a bit of mint. This elaborate folding technique requires additional follow-up instructions, especially for a south-paw like me, but soon two dozen irregular pot sticker-shaped dumplings are lined up along the cutting board. After their bath in gently boiling water, Maestro Walter Zenoni dresses the curligiones in a simple mint-spiked tomato sauce. I take one from the platter passed around the table. My fork pierces the chubby pillow to reveal a pocket of steamy, cheesy mashed potatoes. The taste reminds me of an Eastern European dumpling rather than Italian ravioli. This is comfort food on steroids. I stab another from the platter with my fork.
I’ve traveled from California to Brescia to attend a week-long pasta course through Manuelina Culinary at the well-regarded CAST Alimenti culinary school. I chose Manuelina Culinary for its emphasis on short term, intensive, professional- grade training for students serious about a culinary future. We’re a motley crew of six students. I’m the only American – the “food enthusiast” in the group (a polite way to say I’m squandering my extensive culinary education). My classmates are a 19-year old Latvian recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, a Canadian who’s considering opening a pasta shop, an easy-going, yet determined, Czech looking for a career change and two vivacious Australian restaurant owners. I’ve made pasta a few times with mixed results. As both a food enthusiast and perfectionist, I’ve flown to Italy to hone my skills and pursue my long-held dream of studying the alchemy of Italian grandmothers that transforms flour, water and egg into Italy’s most famous dish.
Brescia, located an hour east of Milan, is a heavily industrialized city that’s most famous for its Beretta pistol factory. Within Brescia’s moat of unappealing factories and urban sprawl hides an unexpectedly charming town center filled with cobbled lanes that wind around enchanting piazzas, two duomos, UNESCO-recognized Roman ruins and even a hilltop castle. Better yet, with neighbors like Lake Como, Milan, and Venice, Brescia has been overlooked by most guidebooks, keeping the influx of tourists at bay, even in July’s high-season.
Located at the last subway stop on Brescia’s outskirts, Cast Alimenti culinary school is large, well-equipped and sparkling clean. This isn’t grandma’s kitchen. CAST Alimenti is a serious school for students with culinary goals or, at least, a profound culinary passion. Still, novice cooks should not be deterred. The instruction is geared towards all student levels, including beginners – just don’t expect quaint lunches served among the Nebbiolo vines.
Our instructor is the immaculate Maestro Walter Zenoni. Throughout class, Maestro Walter deftly combines pasta and sauce with a flip of his wrist and nary a splatter. His chef’s whites remain pristine, as does his work station. The Maestro exhibits an unruffled manner and quiet sense of humor. Maestro’s lessons are taught in English and easy to follow, except for an occasional and endearing confusion between the English translation for “red” and “green.”
Melina Puntoriero, Manuelina’s amiable Director and an accomplished chef in her own right, stands at Maestro Walter’s side, on hand for tricky translations and to assist us with the most complicated pasta folds.
We begin the week with the basics – over a dozen assorted hand-cut pasta shapes, authentic lasagna Bolognese (no ricotta here), and colored pasta dough with fillings including pumpkin, pork and two spinach versions. Emphasis is placed on the regional origin of each dish – Brescia’s own casoncelli, maccheroni alla chittara from Abruzzo, and pasta alla Norma from Sicily. To my amazement, we don’t mince one garlic clove the entire week. The closest we get is thinly slicing garlic for spaghetti aglio e olio (spaghetti with garlic and oil). In Italy, I discover, garlic is crushed, warmed in the cooking oil, and used sparingly. The garlic cloves are removed prior to serving, for just a whisper of flavor in the finished sauce.
On Wednesday, we shift from hand-shaped pasta to a machine-extruded pasta demonstration. There’s not much art in pasta prepared this way, but it’s a necessary evil for high production. After the demo, we’re elbows deep in dough again as we resume work on filled pasta – cappelletti and tortellini, starting with the largest at an inch and moving towards the tiniest Barbie-doll version for cappelletti en brodo. Later in the day, we veer from traditional shapes towards modern pastas like caprese ravioli with a filling of candied tomatoes, basil cream and mozzarella, as well as goat cheese and ricotta-filled, toblerone-shaped chocolate pasta.
Later in the week, we prepare lesser-known regional dishes, like the curligiones mentioned above, as well as eggless dried pasta, gluten-free pasta, pillowy gnocchi, and golden saffron risotto. We finish and plate our final dishes on Friday. We’re encouraged to taste each dish and, after a week of sampling, confess to craving a respite of salad upon returning home.
As I board my flight back to the States, my brain is swollen with newly-acquired pasta techniques, my duffel bag bulges with recipes and pasta tool souvenirs, and my tummy protrudes over my jeans…the triple-crown of a well spent holiday. It’s time to bid arrivederci to Manuelina Culinary and CAST Alimenti. I’ll need further practice before my pasta skills are perfected, but I depart Brescia with the training needed to get me there.
Julie Seyler is a foodaholic, writer, and author of the blog, TwoBitTart.com. A graduate of culinary school and an itinerant student of gelato, pastry, and, most recently, Italian pasta, she labels herself neither Chef nor expert, but a fan of all things gastronomic. Follow her on Instagram: @TwoBitTart.