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Cooking School in Florence

In addition to Willinger and the family chef, the faculty at Capezzana includes Countess Lisa, many of whose recipes have entered into the curriculum; Jean-Louis de Mori, Willinger's co-director, who teaches half of the 10 sessions a year (the rest of the time, he's seeing to his restaurants in Los Angeles, including Locanda Veneta and Allegria); and assorted guest chefs. When I was at Capezzana, Johanne Killeen and George Germon, proprietors of Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island, were in residence. Anna Tasca Lanza, a celebrated cook who offers her own course at her house in Sicily, came to pay her friend Faith a visit and stayed two days. These experts gave us the benefit of their knowledge as they answered our questions and showed us their techniques.

No two days were alike, but the agenda always included some kitchen time—a few hours prior to lunch or dinner, during which we learned to roast a guinea fowl, to clean baby artichokes, to sharpen knives. Countess Lisa's recipes for penne with leeks and lemon (which appears in Willinger's book Red, White & Greens, a compendium of Italian vegetable dishes) and for a cake made with olive oil instead of butter were mastered easily enough. We watched Benedetta prepare her pizza dough—a bizarre concoction incorporating honey and red wine that looks like primordial ooze at the outset and over the course of the day transforms itself, on the basis of nothing but a punching down every few hours. "The nice thing about this dough, though it does require a commitment," Willinger remarks, "is that you don't have to give it orthodonture, you don't have to send it to college."

Willinger's informal disquisitions—on balsamic vinegar, soppressata, ribollita ("reboiled" soup, made with white beans, vegetables, and bread)—are often punctuated by priceless one-liners. She pronounces a good Pinot Nero "the kind of wine that makes a perfect substitute for psychotherapy": when you're feeling really bad, she explains, you need something really good. She says of the canned tuna caught seasonally in the Mediterranean, where the fish go to spawn: "These are tuna thinking of sex." France—to her mind, a misguided, pretentious nation where it's hard to get a good meal—is contemptuously referred to as "the F country."

It would be difficult to imagine a more entertaining guide to the local attractions. Off we went every day on field trips, with Willinger leading the way: to the macelleria, or butcher shop, in Ferruccia, where we saw how prosciutto is made (while the vegetarians among us waited outside); to the bakery in Prato, where we snacked on a bagful of the scrumptious crumbs that result when long batons of biscotti are cut into slices; to the area's leading producer of liqueur-filled chocolates, in Agliana, where we witnessed the little bottle-shaped molds being filled with vin santo. To say that many of these destinations are off the tourist track does not begin to convey just how inconspicuous they are. In several cases, as Willinger remarked with only a small degree of hyperbole, our arrival doubled the village's population.

Sometimes our objective was a famous local restaurant, where we were introduced to the chef and his specialties. In the town of Prato, Osvaldo Baroncelli took us into the kitchen to demonstrate his fricassea, a chicken dish made-to-order from the white meat, livers, and wattle. His stuffed chicken neck may not rate high on the list of recipes we plan to trot out for friends, but it certainly illustrated the frugality that pervades Tuscan cooking, even at its most elaborate. Nothing is thrown away; many recipes incorporate leftovers.

At lunch in Florence, Fabio Picchi, the proprietor of Cibrèo, reprimanded certain members of our party for tackling their polenta with spoons rather than forks; he also forbade us to share portions or to offer one another tastes. In the end, however, the food was so sublime that it won out over the severity of his welcome. "This," Willinger announced, savoring her meat course, "happens to be a lamb that read Dante."

It was no time to go on a diet. Lunches and dinners consisted of four courses, each with its own wine. I, who have always loved to eat and helped myself to seconds, suddenly discovered my appetite's outer limits. Dessert, when it arrived, was too much; breakfast was unthinkable. Three times, I managed to put myself through an hour of aerobics in my room, which was the only mitigating factor in what seemed like a week of Thanksgivings. On a visit to the Pitti Palace, where we were granted a private tour of the collection assembled by Count Ugo's grandfather—an astounding array of paintings and sculpture by Tintoretto, Della Robbia, Goya, El Greco, Bernini, and others—I found myself grateful for the respite from food.

I, for one, had underestimated the omnipresence of meat in Tuscan cooking, from the seasonal salumi (cured meats), served as appetizers, to the bistecca alla fiorentina, charcoal-grilled steak (a beloved main course). As the week wore on, several of us who had previously succeeded in rising above our carnivorous urges were confronted with a new temptation at nearly every meal. Eve stuck to her guns, but others, like Barbara and I—whose vegetarian habits were based not on moral conviction but on mere good intentions concerning our health—soon wavered in the presence of a good prosciutto.

One morning midweek, we set out for Panzano in Chianti, a sleepy town on a steep hillside, where we descended on the premises of butcher Dario Cecchini. Festooning the ceiling were garlands of garlic and red chili peppers, draped from big iron meat hooks. A bookcase housed hefty volumes on Jan Dibbets, the Dutch conceptual artist, and Renzo Piano, the contemporary architect, interspersed with reference works on charcuterie. There were paintings on the walls and, in the far corner, a statue of a naked woman, as fat as I felt; the work, Cecchini explained, of an artist friend living in Paris, whom he is paying in installments of prosciutto.

A handsome man in his thirties, with striking blue eyes and a short beard, Cecchini was dressed in a blood-stained white apron, a paisley scarf, and a red hat like the one Federico da Montefeltro wears in his famous portrait by Piero della Francesca. The hat was a nice touch, a theatrical flourish suggesting that this renaissance man is a Renaissance man as well. I remarked to Willinger that although there must be unattractive men working somewhere in the Tuscan food industry, she had certainly failed to find them. "I don't want to hurt my eyes," she replied.

The white-tiled room reverberated with the sound of a Beethoven string quartet. Cecchini lowered the volume so Willinger could be heard. She had reverently billed his shop as "the Vatican of meat," and now, during our two-hour audience with this debonair pope, she interviewed him on assorted subjects—among them, salt (only salt from Sicily is acceptable for Italian cooking, he decreed, and the use of salt from the Atlantic is "blasphemy"). Cecchini has become something of a celebrity in food circles and is regularly presented with opportunities to enlarge his business—to open far-flung branches, to star in a festival organized by a famous New York restaurant. He has politely refused it all. He is an artisan, in love with his craft, and his love is pure.

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