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A Tuscan Cooking Vacation with Marco Canora

Marco Canora’s devotees follow the star New York City chef across an ocean to learn his cooking secrets during a weeklong class at his mother’s beautiful Tuscan villa.

“I need two more battuto-ers over here!” calls out Marco Canora, the New York City chef and cooking teacher. He’s watching a student hack at a bunch of onions to prepare a battuto, a blend of vegetables, herbs and oil that provides the first layer of flavor for many Italian dishes. The students are eight of Canora’s most devoted restaurant regulars; the classroom is the kitchen of his mother’s lovely villa in Tuscany. “Battuto,” Canora says, relishing the word—and the whole teaching-in-Italy experience.

tuscan cooking school/marco canora

Students cook with Marco Canora. Photo © John Kernick.

Over the past few years, Americans have founded quite a few Italian cooking schools, and star chefs like Canora are leading classes all over the country. Next summer, he will teach at Montecastelli near Siena. The class at his mother’s house is a test run—a wildly successful one, it turns out.

The owner of acclaimed Manhattan restaurants Hearth and Insieme and the quirky wine bar Terroir, Canora is known for his refined take on regional Italian dishes, such as snapper crudo with lemon and red pepper. But when he teaches, he turns to homestyle dishes like eggs poached in tomato sauce, served warm and runny over grilled country bread. This is the kind of food he grew up eating in upstate New York, where his Tuscan mother, Laura Sbrana, cooked what she grew in her garden. (She eventually opened a cooking school on Martha’s Vineyard.) Canora shares simple, market-driven recipes like these in his first cookbook, Salt to Taste.

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“Teaching reminds me of why I chose to become a chef—the creative part is why I love it,” Canora says as he checks on his students. He stands over a woman who’s painstakingly slicing porcini mushrooms. “Don’t overthink it—it’s all going to get sautéed,” he says, guiding her hand. Soon, she’s slicing at a rapid beat.

marco canora

Marco Canora. Photo © John Kernick.

For the next few hours, the students prep. As Canora puts it, “Mornings are chop-chop. Afternoons are marinating.” The dishes are mostly Tuscan classics and very simple to make: a cool farro salad with tomato, cucumber and basil, a tomatoey seafood stew with lots of calamari, clams and shrimp. In the afternoon, Canora shows the students how to make tortelli, pasta “hats” filled with ricotta, spinach and nutmeg. Someone mentions how time-consuming tortelli-making can be. “Get over it,” says Canora. “The tedium is part of the beauty of it.” Everyone’s sticky fingers begin producing balls of dough, which have a canary-yellow color from the local eggs’ intensely orange yolks.

That night, the group sits down to eat what they’ve made, including rustic chicken-liver crostini, a classic Florentine dish; spinach tortelli with brown butter; and rabbit stew with olives, based on the morning’s battuto. “Laura,” someone calls out, “How come Marco doesn’t speak Italian?”

students eat dinner

Students eat dinner. Photo © John Kernick.

“When he was a little boy, he’d put his fingers in his ears when I spoke,” she says.

Canora responds, “My mother will deny this, but it’s her fault. She was dead set on the American dream and ‘my son’s going to be a doctor.’ ” Well, at this moment, her son is a chef in Italy. No one, least of all his proud mother, could argue with the providence of that.

Helen Schulman is the author of four novels, including P.S. and A Day at the Beach.

Published September 2009
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