Cooking School in Florence

Cooking School in Florence

Matt Polazzo
Matt Polazzo
Take five days, stir occasionally, and learn the secrets of the Tuscan kitchen at a cooking school outside Florence

ON A SUNDAY NIGHT IN MID-NOVEMBER, the members of the coming week's class at the Capezzana Wine & Culinary Center, which offers cooking courses in the Tuscan countryside, have convened at a restaurant in Florence. The waiters bring each table a bowl of olive oil, freshly pressed, which is to your standard, store-bought, extra-virgin variety what Technicolor is to black-and-white. For those of us who are tasting olio nuovo for the first time, this is an epiphany. The oil, we are told, retains its peppery tang for roughly two months after it has been pressed; by January, the flavor will have evened out and grown more subtle—more like what we Americans, who tend to buy our olive oil months after the harvest and far from the source, are accustomed to. So we seize the moment, using thick slices of bread as sponges. Naturally, the conversation turns to olive oil. "My best olive oil story . . ." a New Yorker named Rosemary begins, and my heart sinks. A culinary rookie with no repertoire of olive oil anecdotes, I fear I'm out of my league.

All 16 of my classmates seem to live and breathe food. In their spare time, they attend department-store demonstrations by famous chefs. There is Michael, an interior designer from New York; Eve, a photographers' agent from New Jersey; Barbara, a housewife from a Boston suburb; Mary and Bob, a Canadian couple and Capezzana alumni, returning this time with Bob's mother. My own cooking "technique," if that's not too big a word for it, has been limited to omelettes and baked goods; on those rare occasions when I cook for friends, it is always the same menu—chicken roasted in mustard—and this effectively prevents me from inviting the same people twice. So my excitement about the course at Capezzana is tinged with a certain amount of trepidation. What if I flunk?

As it turns out, there was no cause for worry: the chief—perhaps the only—requirement for participation in the course is not experience or skill, but enthusiasm. The school's co-director, Faith Willinger, an American who has lived in Florence for the past 25 years and written two books, exudes a love of food—of Italian food in particular, and of the lore surrounding it—that transcends all our disparities. In five days, she would introduce us to the artisans, the ingredients, the wines, and the recipes that make Tuscan cooking so unlike anything back home. Dressed that first evening in an oversize yellow fleece jacket, brightly patterned leggings, and red sneakers, Willinger cut a somewhat eccentric figure as we made our way back through the narrow streets to our hotel; her short, graying hair belies her vigor.

Before registering for the program, I had briefly considered enrolling in two other popular courses, one taught by a stately aristocrat, the other by an imperious cookbook author. Both of these instructors, I was warned, would take it for granted that I already knew how to make a béchamel sauce. Willinger, for her part, takes nothing for granted, and she brings to her role as teacher the patience of a saint and the humor of a stand-up comic. Her ability to put people at ease convinced me instantly that I had made the right decision.

COOKING CLASS IS MY IDEA OF "ADVENTURE TRAVEL." I work in the fashion business, among an irreversibly skewed subset of the human species that regards eating (never mind cooking) as a sin and celebrates restaurants for their "scene." "You're doing what?" my incredulous colleagues asked. Going on safari they could understand, but this . . . No sooner had Donna Karan sent her final model down the runway, marking the end of the semi-annual monthlong marathon of collections, than I, utterly exhausted, hailed a taxi to the airport.

Monday, we boarded a bus that took us to the Tenuta di Capezzana, an estate 25 minutes west of Florence that would be our campus. The road passed through Carmignano, the nearest town, then wound high into the hills, climbing above the early-morning fog and affording us spectacular views of the landscape rendered in countless Renaissance paintings as the backdrop for noblemen and saints. A row of cypresses along a ridge, a lone umbrella pine silhouetted against the sky, the golden light that drenches the fields all contribute to an unmistakable sense of place: this is Tuscany, still true to itself despite the encroaching sameness that seems to beset the rest of the world.

The villa at Capezzana, built in the 16th century for a member of the Medici family, is typical of the region, with pale yellow stucco walls and a red tile roof. There are three dining rooms, one equipped with a grill, another with a wood oven for pizza. Throughout the house, the floors are paved with terra-cotta tiles; the furniture is a hodgepodge of different periods, amassed over four generations. Capezzana is now home to Count Ugo Contini Bonacossi and his wife, Lisa. Willinger calls him "the count from central casting"—handsome, dressed in the manner of an English country squire, adept at charming the ladies. Countess Lisa, though not as gregarious, is a lesson in seemingly effortless efficiency; the night before our arrival, she had held a dinner for 300.

The house at Capezzana is also the headquarters for a thriving business in which three of the seven Contini Bonacossi children take an active part: Filippo, an agronomist, supervises the production of the olive orchards and vineyards; Beatrice (known as Bea) handles marketing; Benedetta runs tours of the estate and the cellars. Bea's two-year-old daughter, Annalu, already shows signs of an affinity for the family business. Tagging along on a tour of the limonaio, where grapes intended for the manufacture of vin santo (the local dessert wine) are drying on racks, she silenced the visitors: "Shh," she told us, putting a finger to her lips. "The grapes are sleeping."

The Contini Bonacossis seemed to take our comings and goings in stride: the 17 of us were readily absorbed by the house and its everyday routine. The accommodations proved to be simple but comfortable, more along the lines of a dormitory (singles and doubles available) than a hotel—albeit a dormitory outfitted with antiques. A communal breakfast room also serves as a late-night lounge. The atmosphere is convivial, and apart from a jet-lag-induced nap that I stole one afternoon, I found that I spent surprisingly little time in my room.

The heart of the house is the kitchen, where everyone congregates, family and students alike, around the large central worktable. Patrizio Cirri, the resident chef, presides over preparations for lunch and dinner with an aplomb envied by those of us who still rely on recipes. He cracks an egg and deftly plops it into the center of the ring of flour he has shaped on the table's marble surface, then, with his fingers, gradually mixes a batter for biscotti. He sloshes olive oil into a pan. "How much was that?" we ask, already concerned about re-creating the dish at home. "A third of a cup?Half a cup?" Willinger estimates the quantities, which we dutifully record in our notebooks. Years of use have worn the numbers off the dials on Patrizio's oven, which for him poses no problem: he can tell the difference between 325 degrees and 350 simply by sticking his hand inside. For us, Willinger specifies the temperatures.

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.

Cecchini's first-rate selection of meats and salumi is augmented by a handful of cheeses (among them, a superb young pecorino) and three types of beans, including the small, round fagioli zolfini di Valdarno, slightly sulfurous in taste and delicious when cooked with rosemary, then tossed with new olive oil. But in the end it was Cecchini's profumo di Chianti—his own blend of salt and indigenous seasonings such as rosemary, sage, bay leaves, and coriander—that we all bought. Soon after my return to New York, a liberal sprinkling of it on some Cornish hens was all it took to persuade the friends I'd invited for dinner that I had acquired some new, hard-won culinary expertise.

And that, in fact, turns out to be not a lie but merely an exaggeration. I learned a lot. But, in keeping with one of the prime hazards of any education, I now have a much better idea of all that I don't know. What I still lack is the ability to take a recipe and make it my own—as Countess Lisa once did on an almost daily basis, when she would make olive oil cake for her children, each time flavoring it with different ingredients.

Friday—our last day—was devoted to wine. Nick Belfrage, a consultant to several vineyards in the area, provided a crash course that ranged wide, from the genesis of the new "super-Tuscans" (renegade reds that have developed outside the old standards for classification) to the local approach, in which wine is considered an adjunct to food—an attitude inconducive to the sort of wine cults that have sprung up in northern Europe, where wine is regarded as an entity unto itself.

Our graduation ceremony that evening was—what else?—a dinner, with a menu by George and Johanne, featuring as a first course their famous pizza cooked over a wood fire on the grill. Count Ugo delivered the commencement address, quoting Virgil, musing on the immortality of great books as compared to other, more ephemeral achievements. "Those of us who make wine and food," he said, "dedicate our energies to the pleasure of the moment." Well, I thought, let's not overestimate the value of literature. After all, the week's convivial delights—however fleeting—had succeeded in restoring my soul.

Then Willinger called out our names, one by one, and Countess Lisa bestowed our diplomas. "Barbara!" Faith announced. "A lapsed vegetarian. My kinda girl!"

The Capezzana Wine & Culinary Center offers five-day cooking classes 10 times a year, conducted by food writer Faith Willinger or Los Angeles restaurateur Jean-Louis de Mori. The curriculum varies depending on season and composition of the group, which rarely exceeds 14. All lessons are in English—most students are American or Canadian—but even a rudimentary knowledge of Italian makes the experience more enjoyable, especially during exchanges with local chefs and on shopping excursions. Days are typically devoted to demonstrations and field trips; in the evenings, students prepare dinner from supplies they've gathered.

Fees for the week per person range from $2,350 (for a shared room and bath) to $3,000 (for private quarters), and include all meals and an overnight in Florence. Capezzana also offers tours to the public; the estate produces 11 types of wine and a superb olive oil, available as olio nuovo in November and December, immediately after the first pressing. For more information, contact Tenuta di Capezzana (100 Via Capezzana, Carmignano 50042; 39-055/870-6005, fax 39-055/870-6673) or the estate's U.S. agent, Marlene Levinson (55 Raycliff Terrace, San Francisco, CA 94115; 415/928-7711, fax 415/928-7789).

Tuscan destinations for the food-obsessed.

Antonio Mattei 20 Via Ricasoli, Prato; 39-0574/25756. Most famous for biscotti, but try the scrumptious brutti buoni ("ugly but good"), chewy almond cookies.
Antica Macelleria Cecchini 11 Via XX Luglio Panzano; 39-055/852-020. Refinement and intellect in a butcher shop. Check out the salumi (cured meats, such as prosciutto), butcher Dario Cecchini's mix of salt and herbs, fennel pollen (delicious on salmon), and lavender (Cecchini recommends it with lamb).
Arte del Cioccolato 378 Via Provinciale, Agliana; 39-0574/718-506. Above his candy shop, Roberto Catinari painstakingly makes chocolates with liquid centers. Varieties include logs filled with grappa, corks with champagne, and wine bottles with Chianti. Also look for exquisite chocolates in the shape of chestnuts, acorns, and porcini mushrooms.
Macelleria Marini 313 Via Selva, Ferruccia; 39-0574/718-119. Renowned producer of prosciutto Toscano, slightly saltier than the more ubiquitous San Daniele or Parma types. Perfect with unsalted Tuscan bread.

(Open Monday to Saturday, unless indicated.)
San Lorenzo Piazza del Mercato Centrale, Florence.
Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio Piazza Ghiberti, Florence.
Santo Spirito Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence.
Mercato di Prato Prato (Monday mornings only).

Cibrèo 8/r Via A. del Verrocchio, Florence; 39-055/234-1100; dinner for two $90. Superb cooking by Fabio Picchi, one of Italy's most celebrated chefs.
La Bussola 382 Via Vecchia Fiorentina, Catena; 39-0573/743-128; dinner for two $68. Wonderful Tuscan specialties, including cured goose breast with limonella, a lemon herb, on flatbread.
Ristorante Osvaldo Baroncelli 13 Via Fra Bartolomeo, Prato; 39-0574/23810; dinner for two $74. Try the scottiglia di pollo in fricassea, an exotic chicken and tomato stew.

Bartolini 30/r Via dei Servi, Florence; 39-055/211-895. A comprehensive selection of housewares, from the utilitarian to the deluxe.
Richard-Ginori 17/r Via dei Rondinelli, Florence; 39-055/210-041. Classic Ginori china, as well as crystal (including glasses by Riedel) and silver.
Abbigliamento da Lavoro Alba 27/r Via dei Servi, Florence; 39-055/287-754. Uniforms and aprons for professional cooks—and amateurs who want to look the part.

Tenuta di Bagnolo 156 Via Montalese, Montemurlo; 39-0574/652-439. After touring Capezzana, visit this producer of Marchesi Pancrazi, an excellent Pinot Noir. Sample the olive oil and the pecorino as well.

Oil by Mail
Capezzana's olio nuovo can be ordered in early December from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor (888/636-8162). A half-liter costs about $30.

Tips from the Tuscan kitchen

  • Olive oil tastes best within a year of its production. Top producers include date of harvest on their labels.
  • Kale, cauliflower, broccoli, winter squash, and apples are all more flavorful after the first frost.
  • For making pasta and pizza dough, use American pastry flour; it has the same low-gluten, soft-wheat composition as Italian flour.
  • Carnaroli is the ultimate rice for making risotto: its center stays al dente, and the outside has just enough starch to create a lightly creamy sauce—without cream.
  • Tuscans prepare garlic bread (fettunta) by toasting slices of bread, rubbing garlic on the surfaces, then sprinkling on salt and extra-virgin olive oil. This is Faith Willinger's favorite dish.
  • Use a carrot peeler to make Parmesan cheese curls—a perfect garnish for pasta and vegetables.
  • A Corian cutting board chilled in the freezer can take the place of marble for making pastry.
  • For asparagus as sweet as the day it was picked, lop off the ends and soak the stalks for 15 to 20 minutes in a half-inch of sugar water.

Two Soups in One or, The Tuscan Art of Leftovers

Minestra di Fagioli (Bean Soup)

1 onion or leek, chopped coarsely
2 garlic cloves, chopped coarsely
2 celery stalks, chopped coarsely
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 lb. kale or Swiss chard (stems removed), shredded
1/2 medium cabbage, shredded
3 large carrots, quartered and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 lb. winter squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
fresh herbs: 1 sprig each rosemary and thyme, a few sage leaves, 1 bay leaf
7 cups bean broth or water
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups cooked white beans (traditionally leftovers from a side dish)
1 slice per person of toasted country bread rubbed with garlic

1. Put the onion, garlic, and celery in a 5-quart pot. Mix in olive oil and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until onion is tender.

2. Add vegetables, herbs, and broth or water, and simmer for 1 hour.

3. Remove rosemary sprig and bay leaf. Add 3 cups beans, plus salt and pepper to taste. In a food processor, purée 5 cups of vegetables from the soup. Return purée to the soup with reserved cup of beans.

4. Place toasted bread in each bowl and ladle soup over bread. Serve with drizzle of olive oil. Save leftovers for ribollita.

Ribollita (Bread Soup)

6-8 1/2-inch slices of bread, preferably unsalted Tuscan-style, otherwise top-quality white or whole wheat, stale or toasted in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes or until completely dry
5 cups bean soup (see above)
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil per person, for garnish

1. Heat the bean soup in a 2-quart pot until it comes to a boil. Remove 1 cup of beans and vegetables with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the dried bread to the pot and submerge. Remove pot from heat, cover, and let stand 15-20 minutes or until bread is soft.

2. Purée soup and bread in the pot with a hand mixer, or pulse in a food processor until bread is absorbed. Return mixture to the pot. Add the reserved beans and vegetables and heat thoroughly. If ribollita is too thick, add water, 1/4 cup at a time, diluting to the thickness of oatmeal. Salt to taste.

3. Ladle into serving bowls; top with freshly ground pepper and a generous drizzle of olive oil.

Recipes adapted from Faith Willinger's Red, White & Greens (HarperCollins).

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