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Italy’s Top Cooking Schools

America’s elite travel advisers reveal the Italian cooking schools where they send their fussiest food-obsessed clients.

Ten years ago, any American tourist who wanted to take an Italian cooking-school vacation headed straight for Tuscany. But as Americans have grown savvier about regional Italian food, they have become more interested in taking classes all over Italy, and more schools are opening to meet the demand—not just in farmhouse kitchens, but also at hotels and wineries with state-of-the-art facilities. We’ve noticed some other promising trends, like insidery field trips to artisanal food producers, customizable classes and intensive multiweek programs. Picking the right cooking class, then, is now more fun—and more challenging—than ever. To get the inside scoop, F&W went to 11 elite, Italy-focused travel advisers and asked them which schools their picky clients love most. Here, the new and classic programs that came out on top.

Tuscany

Florence: Cucina con Vista

Teacher Chef Elena Mattei, a Florence native, ran a restaurant before opening the school in 2001.

Setting A farmhouse in the hills, with a professional kitchen and its own vineyards and olive groves.

Classes Hands-on classes of up to four students focus on classic Tuscan dishes—what Mattei refers to as “grandmother’s cooking”— such as crostini alla fiorentina con fegatini (chicken liver pâté on toast) and polpettone al pomodoro (meatballs with tomato sauce).

Field Trips Wine tours through Chianti; trips to Sant'Ambrogio market to try Florentine specialties, such as lampredotto (tripe).

Recommended By Pamela O’Shea, Custom Italy; customitaly.com.

One- to four-day classes year-round, by request. From $270 to $1,025; 011-39-055-632-348 or cucinaconvista.it.

Montalcino: Castello Banfi–Il Borgo

Teachers Heinz Beck, Rome’s only Michelin three-star chef, will be the first guest teacher when cooking programs begin (they’re slated to start in October). Home cooks and local chefs will lead future classes.

Setting Castello Banfi winery’s seven-month-old Il Borgo property in Tuscany. Guests stay in one of 14 luxe rooms and suites in stone houses that were built in the 18th century.

Classes Over three days of hands-on classes (for no more than 14 students), chef Beck will focus on classic and contemporary Tuscan dishes and pair them with Castello Banfi estate wines. Castello Banfi’s winemakers and sommeliers will also lead wine seminars and take students on tours of the estate’s vineyard before tastings. The three-day cooking- class packages include dinner at Il Ristorante, Castello Banfi’s Michelin-starred restaurant.

Recommended By Too new to review.

The first classes will be held October 28–31 and November 25–28. From $4,000, including accommodations; 800-645-6511 or castellobanfi.com.

Montepulciano: Italian Food Artisans

Teacher Longtime Italian cooking instructor and cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns moved to Tuscany full-time six years ago to lead culinary workshops.

Setting Poggio Etrusco, Sheldon Johns’s 15-acre family farm. Students stay at villa apartments overlooking the tiny hill town of Cortona.

Classes Hands-on lessons for groups of up to 12 cover dishes like pici, a southern-Tuscan pasta.

Field Trips Visits to Avignonesi, one of the best producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and to Mondo X, a restaurant in the 13th-century Convent of St. Francis.

Recommended By Pamela Scott, Foothill Enterprises; 818-726-5107.

Classes year-round. From $237 to $3,600, including accommodations; 805-963-7289 or foodartisans.com.

Fiesole: Villa San Michele School of Cookery

Teachers Guest chefs, many from Orient-Express hotels in Italy.

Setting A former 15th-century Franciscan monastery in the Fiesole hills that Orient-Express restored into a stunning hotel. The cooking school launched in 2004; a kids’ program (for ages 8 to 14) in 2005.

Classes Hands-on lessons range from two-and-a-half-hour classes on Italian staples like risotto to three-day intensive pasta courses taught by three different chefs and focusing on the distinct styles of northern, southern and central Italy.

Recommended By Pamela O’Shea, Custom Italy; customitaly.com. Peter Friedman, Unique Travel of Palm Beach, Inc.; uniquetrav.com.

Classes from April through October. Programs are generally three to four days. From $1,330, including accommodations; 800-237-1236 or villasanmichele.com.

Emilia-Romagna

Parma: Academia Barilla

Teachers The Barilla family, founders of the 130-year-old pasta company, brings chefs from Italy and beyond (like F&W Best New Chef 2004 Scott Conant) to teach at this three-year-old cooking school.

Setting The school is in the Renzo Piano–designed Barilla Center complex and has a 16-station kitchen and a 90-seat amphitheater.

Classes One-on-one, half-day lessons cover topics like Sardinian cuisine; longer programs include a three-day pasta-making class.

Field Trips Visits to local artisanal vinegar and prosciutto producers are combined with trips to sites such as the Ferrari museum.

Recommended By Margot Cushing, Linden Travel Bureau; lindentravel.com.

Classes year-round. From $500 for a half-day session to $1,700 for three days; 866-772-2233 or academiabarilla.com.

Veneto

Verona: Villa Giona

Teachers Giuliano Hazan, son of renowned Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, and Marilisa Allegrini of the nearby Allegrini Winery.

Setting Guests at this seven-year-old school stay at a villa set on 12 acres of private parks and vineyards that supply grapes to Allegrini Winery.

Classes Hazan teaches groups of up to 12 how to make dishes like fresh tortelloni filled with Swiss chard and ricotta in five-hour, hands-on lessons. Allegrini explains Italy’s wine regions.

Field Trips Tours of Allegrini winery, which produces a renowned Amarone, and of the Po River area, known for its culatello (cured ham).

Recommended By Kathleen Stahl, Kathleen Stahl Travel Services; 800-982-8606.

Weeklong programs four to five times per year. From $4,175, including accommodations; 011- 39-045-685-5011 or villagiona.it.

Umbria

Assisi: Alla Madonna del Piatto

Teacher Perugia native Letizia Mattiacci, who opened the school in 2003 with her husband, Ruurd.

Setting A farmhouse bed and breakfast in the hills of Assisi.

Classes Students learn how to prepare Umbrian and Sicilian dishes like ravioli, tagliatelle and sartù (a shell made of rice and filled with tiny meatballs, cheeses and vegetables) during half-day classes that include hands-on components.

Field Trips Classes start off with a tasting trip to the nearby village of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where students can sample local foods like wild boar sausages.

Recommended By Sally Watkins, Century Travel; sallywatkins.com.

Classes twice a week on weekdays, from mid-March through December. From $149 per class; 011-39-075-819-9050 or incampagna.com.

Apulia

Brindisi: Masseria Torre Coccaro

Teacher Liberata Bruno, a nonna known as the “lady of the Masseria.”

Setting A 16th-century watchtower that was transformed five years ago into a rustic-luxe hotel.

Classes Two-and-a-half-hour, hands-on classes specialize in traditional Apulian cuisine; dishes might include a tiella (a baked rice dish flavored with aromatic herbs) made with rice, potatoes and mussels.

Field Trips Trips can be arranged to the nearby Tormaresca winery, and from November to March, students can pick olives and learn how to make olive oil.

Recommended By Doris White, Travel Dynamics; 888-643-6747.

From $108 for a two-and-a-half-hour cooking workshop; 011-39-080-482-9310 or masseriatorrecoccaro.com.

Lazio

Rome: Diane Seed’s Roman Kitchen

Teacher British cookbook author Diane Seed has lived in Rome for 30 years and has been teaching cooking classes since 1990.

Setting Diane’s house, the Doria Pamphili palace, in Piazza Venezia, Rome’s historic center.

Classes Hands-on sessions for up to 12 students include many dishes with Roman roots, like fried pumpkin flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies. Seed talks about the social history of Italian food and explains why so many Jewish dishes were absorbed into Roman cuisine. She is also known for giving exceptional seminars on olive oil.

Field Trips Visits to Campo dei Fiori, Rome’s central food market, and insidery food destinations like Viola, a salumeria that sells excellent pig’s trotters and other specialties.

Recommended By Steve Barofsky, Crystal Tours; crystal-tours.com. Christene Kieffer, Cartolina Tours Inc; cartolinatours.com.

One-, two-, three- and five-day classes year-round (except in August). From $270 for a single day to $1,350 for five days; dianeseed.com.

Campania

Ravello: Mamma Agata Cooking School

Teacher Amato “Mamma” Agata, owner of this 13-year-old school, has cooked for celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Setting Mamma Agata’s home kitchen overlooks the town of Ravello. Students eat lunch on her outdoor terrace, which has spectacular views of the Amalfi Coast.

Classes Groups of 10 or less learn to make homestyle southern Italian dishes, including penne all'arrabbiata and Mamma Agata’s lemon cake (which she’ll tell you was a favorite of Humphrey Bogart’s) in three- hour cooking sessions that include both hands-on and demonstration portions. Students also learn how to use Mamma Agata’s homegrown organic lemons to make limoncello, another one of her specialties.

Recommended By Deborah Hyte, ALTOUR; altour.com.

Classes year-round by request. From $250 a day; 011-39-089- 857-019 or mammaagata.com.

Sicily

Vallelunga: Casa Vecchie

Teacher Respected cookbook author Anna Tasca Lanza has taught in Sicily for more than 15 years.

Setting Regaleali, the Tasca family’s 1,200-acre wine estate and working farm on the west side of the island, near Palermo. Guests stay in converted farmhouses with great views of the 4,000 olive and fruit trees.

Classes Tasca Lanza holds intensive courses for up to 12 and one-day classes for up to 40 in her blue- and-white tiled kitchen. Students watch cooking demonstrations and participate in hands-on sessions to learn how to prepare traditional Sicilian sauces and famed local specialties like caponata (a sweet-and-sour eggplant dish) and pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines).

Field Trips Guests shop at markets in the village of Vallelunga, tour the family winery and observe as shepherds hand-press ricotta.

Recommended By Peter Friedman, Unique Travel of Palm Beach, Inc.; uniquetrav.com.

One-, two-, three- and five-day classes from September to November and March to May. From $200 to $3,366, including accommodations; absoluteitalia.com.

Published September 2007
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