We're Dreaming of This Italian Cooking School

On the slopes of Mount Etna, chef Christian F. Puglisi returns to his Sicilian roots to teach an extraordinary cooking class.
By Christine Muhlke
September 02, 2020

In the end, the teacher learned as much as the students. Then again, this was no ordinary cooking school. The owners of Rocca delle Tre Contrade, a luxe Sicilian villa with views spanning from Mount Etna to the Ionian Sea, invite chefs from around the world to explore the island’s bounty with their extremely well-fed guests. It might seem an odd fit that their third pairing was with Copenhagen chef Christian F. Puglisi. But it actually represented a profound homecoming—a unique coda to this immigrant’s story.

The celebrated chef, whose restaurants have changed the taste and vibe of international dining over the past decade, lived his first eight years in nearby Messina. A rift between his father and uncle, who co-owned a citrus export company, drove his father and Norwegian mother to leave for Denmark in 1990. Although Puglisi visited his relatives many times over the ensuing decades, the man who helped define New Nordic food had never cooked on the island that was so fundamental to his identity, however split it always felt to him.

Aubrie Pick

“In Sicily, I was this guy from Denmark. And in Denmark, I was this guy from Sicily,” he told the 16 students, who had arrived from as far away as Australia and Vietnam, during a vermouth tasting the first evening (including one made by his Italian partner and sommelier Alessandro Perricone using herbs from Puglisi’s Farm of Ideas, of course). “I can speak the local dialect with the kitchen here, but I’ve never cooked professionally in Sicily.”

When he and Perricone were invited to Tre Contrade by owners Marco Scirè and his Norwegian-born partner, Jon Moslet, to explore offering a class, Puglisi saw the island through a new lens: “With Jon, I got to see Sicily at its most beautiful. He has an incredible respect for local traditions and craft,” he told the students, pointing out that Moslet’s Norwegian-Sicilian journey reminded him of his mother’s. And so Puglisi, too, wanted to share in the journey of discovering Sicily, dish by dish.

Baking pumpkins whole traps steam inside the vegetable, resulting in a lush, velvety pumpkin puree, and making the skins easy to remove. A simple reduction of dry white wine mingles with butter to balance the sweetness of the pumpkin.

Get the Recipe: Whole Baked Pumpkin Soup

Photo: Aubrie Pick

The food that Puglisi serves at his tasting-menu restaurant, Relæ—the first spin-off of a Noma sous chef when it opened in 2010—is about asking questions and understanding complexity. At Bæst, the pizzas and housemade cheeses, bread, and charcuterie explore Italian craft. The small vegetable plates and glasses of natural wine at his restaurant and wine bar, Manfreds, are about the pleasures of company. And all of Puglisi’s food is about rigorous sourcing. (Relæ was the first Michelin-starred restaurant to be certified organic.) At Tre Contrade, curiosity, craft, wine, good company, and pure ingredients would be the theme, with a heritage-breed pig as the through line, slated to appear throughout the week in sauces and charcuterie, cannoli and ’nduja, simply grilled and even underpinning madeleines.

For his pork ragu, which chef Christian F. Puglisi serves with Hand-Rolled Busiate, marinating the pork overnight results in a meltingly tender meat sauce. If you can’t source shank, trotter, or pork belly, season 70% lean ground pork and skip the the grinding step.

Get the Recipe: Busiate with Pork Ragù

Photo: Aubrie Pick

The next morning, the jet-lagged students stood beneath a cobalt sky to greet the pig. With snowy Etna as their backdrop, Puglisi and a farmer who raises these rare black pigs in the Nebrodi Mountains quickly dispatched the rosy half-carcass into a tidy assortment of cuts while Puglisi spoke about the importance of revitalizing old breeds, the health issues that have arisen since people moved from pork fat to vegetable oils, and the relationship between climate change and diet, pausing to admire his cohort: “He deboned that ham faster than I can talk!” The farmer smiled and split the ribs with three hacks.

The farmer who raised the pigs for chef Christian F. Puglisi's cooking class broke down the racks for this roast for the students; ask your local butcher to tackle the task for you. After an initial sear to speed up the rendering process, the well-trimmed and scored pork fat guarantees tender, juicy meat and roasts into a crisp, golden brown crust. Nutty brown butter, balanced with sharp, bright lemon juice complete the simple pan sauce that elevates this roast.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

A trio of freshly toasted nuts blend into a nut butter with a silky and creamy base that still has plenty of crunch from the finely chopped nuts. A bright splash lemon juice, and salty, ricotta salata round out this simple but rich braise.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

Meanwhile, the students were making swift work of bonding. A group of women from Australia, Switzerland, and the U.K.—there were only two men in the class, both husbands along for the ride—viewed the pig as a launchpad to discuss human anatomy. Afterward, they staked out their stations in the demo kitchen—a stunning modern room built around one of the supporting walls of the nearly 200-year-old villa—where they were tasked with separating the pork from its fat, to be used in a variety of sausages that would be made before and after lunch.

That lunch! Served outside in the fall sun, students set upon just-made sausage, grilled sourdough made with starter brought from Puglisi’s Mirabelle Bakery, eggplant salad with pimentón, radicchio with oranges from Tre Contrade’s groves, and grilled pork liver and heart with wild fennel. Perricone, whose infectious sense of fun makes him a natural restaurateur, introduced the Sicilian wines he was pouring, which quickly disappeared. “It’s almost a fake day, it’s so perfect,” said Kaelin Whittaker, a Canadian cooking school owner who returned to Tre Contrade with her mother after taking the villa’s first class with Skye Gyngell, of London’s Spring restaurant, in 2017.

Commonly sold as squid ink, cuttlefish ink lends its signature deep black hue to this dish and coats every strand of spaghetti with its briny, mineral-rich taste. A simple mussel puree provides a mild, delicate seafood flavor and creamy richness.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

The afternoon session included ’nduja- and sausage-stuffing and sourdough 101, with Perricone delivering cocktails around four o’clock, followed by another only-in-Sicily-with-Christian-Puglisi meal prepared by students and staff. After-dinner conversations took root on the deep couches set around the two fireplaces, where Moslet, a consummate host, made everyone feel at home—home in this case being an exquisite 12-bedroom villa that rents for $60,000 a week in the high season.

The next five days included pasta primers, vineyard and market visits, fish butchery lessons, focaccia-making parties, wine tastings, a tour of Catania that concluded with horsemeat sandwiches, and full exposure to Puglisi’s sustainable-food philosophy. All of the recipes were approachable, with a Puglisi twist: an ’nduja-enriched ragù with meatballs, quick swordfish crudo electrified by salted bergamot.

These meatballs are tender, savory, and juicy thanks to a rich blend of pork shoulder, belly, and spicy, spreadable ‘njuda. Traditionally, meatballs shouldn’t be overworked, but treat these more like a sausage filling—thorough mixing helps the fat emulsify properly. Substitute 70/30 ground pork for pork belly and pork shoulder if desired.

Get the Recipe: Meatballs in ’Nduja Sauce

Photo: Aubrie Pick

Through practice, students overcame any fears they may have arrived with. And they were privileged to observe Puglisi’s thought process as he took inspiration from the ingredients to invent dishes on the spot. The local women from the Tre Contrade kitchen stepped in to teach us how to make arancini, cannoli fried in lard, hazelnut semifreddo, and the heavenly cakes that were always available for guests to snack on and therefore constantly being replenished. A profound camaraderie grew between the head chef—Dora Maugeri, a tiny force of nature—and Puglisi, but also with the students, despite the language barrier.

Aubrie Pick

That intense bond extended to the group, who grew close around the villa’s tables, whether in the classroom or at the unforgettable dinners, which always ended with housemade limoncello before the fire. By the last day, the students had planned a reunion in Copenhagen, not only so they could enjoy one another’s company again but also to taste just how much of Rocca delle Tre Contrade that Puglisi had brought back to Denmark—along with the lemon tree for his father he somehow managed to get on the plane.

“Returning to Sicily with a professional cooking agenda was a revelation to me,” Puglisi said a few months later, while preparing Relæ for its 10th anniversary. “While in the last decade I have been removing myself slightly from my roots, this sparked an interest in returning and rediscovering more.” In fact, he’d already scheduled a spring class, with an eye toward making it an annual immersion. “I’ll be back,” he said. “It feels like home again.”

This homemade limoncello boasts rich lemon flavor without being too boozy or sweet. Look for unwaxed organic lemons, or be sure to give the whole citrus a good scrub before peeling. Juice leftover peeled lemons, and freeze juice up to 3 months.

Get the Recipe: Limoncello

Photo: Aubrie Pick

This light cake is something Sicilian grandmothers often serve for tea; at Rocca delle Tre Contrade, guests snack on it all day long. For a tender cake with a light texture, be careful not to overmix the flour into the batter.

Get the Recipe: Sicilian Orange Bundt Cake

Photo: Aubrie Pick