1 Chef Claudio Pecorari is my new kitchen god. Standing in a doorway facing a flagstone courtyard, arms tucked under his tomato-smeared apron, he watches eleven novices clumsily rolling out ravioli and pronounces in his Venetian-inflected English: "Do not attempt to worry." Up to my elbows in sticky focaccia dough, I adopt his offhand coaching as a mantra for this culinary pilgrimage to northern Italy's Veneto region, where I'm hoping to expand my repertoire beyond red sauce and biscotti.
For the next seven days, I share this craving with classmates from Europe, Israel, and the United States. We huddle around steel prep stations at La Foresteria, the converted barnyard annex of a 14th-century estate owned by Count Pieralvise di Serègo Alighieri, a direct descendant of the poet Dante. About 20 minutes outside Verona, La Foresteria has eight modest guest apartments and a modern teaching kitchen. Potted caper shrubs dot a marble-smooth threshing floor. Stone barns are filled with wooden racks of drying grapes harvested from the count's vineyards. (He produces an exceptionally dense, garnet-red Amarone, one of the Valpolicella appellation's aristocratic wines.) Several times a year, the count rents La Foresteria to London-based Tasting Places for its culinary immersion courses.
It has often been said that the best way to comprehend a foreign land is to get its soil under your fingernails. But when it comes to grasping the subtleties of a culture, I'd rather break bread with the farmers and bakers. The next generation of cooking schools makes it possible to share cheese with a goatherd in the French Alps and sip mint tea with a spice merchant in the medina in Marrakesh. That's why I was tempted, despite my garbled Italian, to learn to cook like a Venetian.
Each morning, I wake to church bells ringing in Gargagnago, the village beyond La Foresteria's cypress-lined gates. Then comes my Merchant-Ivory moment. I throw open the shutters and can't help but grin at the view: rows of grapevines surround Casal dei Ronchi, the count's Renaissance-era villa. Downstairs, estate workers laugh over a quick shot of espresso. Tying on a white apron, I head for the warm kitchen. Chef Pecorari lets everyone in the class gravitate toward tasks that spark their interest. While Mary, Beth, and I make the focaccia, Lionel stirs sauces, and Stuart cranks out pasta. With Frank Sinatra crooning "Fly Me to the Moon" on the kitchen's boom box, Pecorari circulates the cutting boards as he adjusts techniques, instructing by anecdote (when kneading pastry dough, "think of your mother-in-law") and discoursing on emblematic Italian ingredients. Who knew there were almost 20 types of ricotta?
The Veneto, bordered by the Adriatic and the Dolomites, has a rich culinary history often overshadowed in American minds by olive oil-drenched Tuscany or pizza-loving Naples. (Tiramisu is the region's most recognized contribution.) Provincial Venetian cuisine was primarily influenced by early sea trade routes—it favors sweet-and-sour combinations (scallops with mint and ginger, stewed tripe with carrots) that could have been shaped only by the republic's ties to Persia and North Africa. Every afternoon, we break away from the kitchen to visit a winery, market, or other Veneto foodie shrine. At the 17th-century rice mill and farm owned by Gabriele Ferron (Italy's reigning risotto maestro) in Isola della Scala, my vocabulary expands with the subtle difference between common arborio and such micro-harvest varieties as stubby Vialone Nano and plump Carnaroli, chewy grains rare outside the Veneto. Later, Pecorari demonstrates how to make risotto al nero di seppia with Ferron's semi-fine Vialone Nano rice and squid ink. He cautions us not to over-stir so as to avoid glutinous results and even shows us a shortcut: instead of removing the ink sacs from fresh cuttlefish, Pecorari uses squid ink packets off the supermercato shelf.
During a shopping expedition to the Caprino Veronese market, everyone in the tiny hill town seems to be showing off a baby, a dog, or a tractor. Women chat at stands selling olives, soppressata, rotisserie chicken, and tiny fried shrimp. Men sip caffè corretto (espresso with a shot of grappa). Neatly dressed members of a Venetian pride organization hand out pamphlets touting the region's agriturismo.
Back at the estate, the class gathers at a long table in the count's tasting room to sample the day's lesson (pasta e fagioli, pappardelle with hare sauce) paired with local vintages. Alighieri's single-estate Recioto is a knockout with Pecorari's chocolate-almond torta. Pity I'm not allowed to take more than two bottles on the flight home.
We make only one outing to Venice, 90 miles away, but it starts gloriously at the fish market on Campo de le Beccarie near the Rialto Bridge. Seafood has been sold in this spot for almost 500 years; under stone columns supported by decorative monkfish, fishmongers display ice-packed trays of scallops, spider crabs, and schilie, the minuscule gray shrimp that inhabit Venice's lagoon. Men in knee-high rubber boots and plastic aprons off-load crates from motorized gondolas. Pecorarihaggles with a stocky lady monger: veraci clams for spaghettini alle vongole, mussels and cuttlefish for zuppa di pesce. I beg him to buy silvery sardines so he can teach me a native favorite—sarde in saor (marinated sardines with sautéed onions and raisins), a humble sailor's staple that perfectly embodies the nexus of Venetian cuisine.
On our final day, the class heads for Verona, where we watch the regional chapter of Movimento Raeliano trying to convince pedestrians that aliens have landed in the Piazza Bra. Restaurants lining the city's main square advertise pastissada de caval, or horsemeat stew. The Veronese eat my friend Flicka. Pecorari explains that it's an ancient practice. I'm not sold, so I settle for Verona's other specialty: baci di Giulietta, meringue cookies (chocolate for Romeo, vanilla for Juliet), which honor the city's fictional lovers.
For our last supper, we cast off splotchy aprons for Giorgio Soave's Groto de Corgnan in neighboring Sant'Ambrogio. I watch my classmates try the chef's exquisite lardo stagionato, thin slivers of pure pork fat drizzled with Valpolicella olive oil, for the first time. It's an acquired taste but they don't hold back. Immersion, finito.
Tasting Places, 877/695-2469; www.tastingplaces.com; from $3,150.
SHANE MITCHELL is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.