Cooking with Nonna Class in Rome – How Italian is this?

The Cooking with Nonna Class is experienced and reviewed by Lawrence Hunt

We’ve all encountered the benefits of growing up in an Italian family. When I used to go to my friend Will’s house, even just to drop something round, his mother would without fail ask me at least six times if I wanted something to eat.

Behind the average Italian man’s unassailable self-esteem, it seems, there’s a steadfast nonna offering strong words of comfort and trying to offload a whole region’s worth of pasta. You can hardly blame him for being content not to leave home until his late thirties.

 

And even outside the home, a vast number of Italian restaurants aim to recreate this welcoming domestic atmosphere, too. If you think about it, crossing spatulas with a true Italian matriarch is probably as essential to understanding Italian culture as watching La Dolce Vita. But, short of going around knocking on doors hoping for an invitation, how do you find this experience when you’re in a city like Rome?

Thankfully, Roman tour company Eating Italy have found a way to fill the niche for the past two years with a formula that’s proved successful: the Cooking with Nonna class.

Singing ‘Con Te Partiro’ as we go, my girlfriend and I follow the road past the Colosseum into the quiet South-eastern Celio neighbourhood, arriving at a charming ground floor apartment within a gated complex.

Greeting us at the door is our adoptive nonna, Antonella, and she’s every bit the photogenic Italian dream-grandma we were hoping for. She’s the perfect mix of non-stop laughter, sound local knowledge and solid professional boundaries – refraining from any temptation to pinch our cheeks or ask us uncomfortable questions about wedding plans.

Even more authentically, she doesn’t speak a word of English, so for translation we’re also joined by Gigi, an American in her twenties who met the love of her life here in Rome and decided to stay. Not a bad choice – with 6 classes a week in high season, she’s been enjoying a fair bit of Antonella’s home cooking.

We’re led into the large kitchen that they’ve refurbished with a huge metal countertop, pleasant retro pastel colours and one unmistakably Italian feature: the interior designer forgot to include a sink, meaning we have to go back and forth to the bathroom to wash our hands.

Group sizes are usually larger, but this time it’s just us and another couple, both students from Sheffield. There’s plenty of time for chatter over a glass of prosecco and our antipasto, a bruschetta with ripe Sicilian tomatoes, drenched in oil and seasoned with salt crystals. The Italian mantra of letting great ingredients speak for themselves is already hitting home.

We start by learning how to make the all-time Italian staple, pasta dough, the recipe for which is simply flour, egg, salt and a lot of intensively physical kneading and pounding. Antonella tells us it’s for this last requirement that men tend to make better pasta. After seeing my efforts, however, she revises this to strong men.

Apparently the weather affects the toughness of the dough, and even the phases of the moon can have an effect. Antonella says she learned this from her mother in law: “Most mothers in law have a bad reputation,” she says, “but I learned everything from mine.”

Once the dough’s in good shape we start on our dessert, a classic tiramisu – the smell of fresh coffee’s been playing with our nostrils since we arrived. Antonella shows us how we separate the egg whites, beating them into a peak, and then mix them back with the yolks and marscapone, before layering the mix into bowls with our coffee-soaked sponge fingers.

Then for our Secondo it’s time to make ‘Saltimbocca’, which carries the delightful translation of ‘Jumps in the mouth’ – and consists of veal escalopes, which we flatten with a hammer and then pincushion with mouthwatering prosciutto ham and sage. This is to be accompanied by steamed Broccolo Romanesco, an alien-looking broccoli that I’ve never seen in a British kitchen.

Having given the dough time to breathe, Antonella gets out the pasta rollers, a contraption we’d never seen before – and which ends up being the most fun part of the whole class, rolling out the dough in successively finer measures and packing them with feta and spinach. My girlfriend actually bought me a roller of my own as soon as we got home, but it all takes such a long time that we won’t be replacing our store-bought pasta in too much of a hurry. Simply knowing that we can seems to be enough.

By this point, we’re about three hours in and very much ready to hear the words buon appetito. The dining room’s all set up, there’s more wine to come, and Gigi’s on top form with lively stories of Rome living and tips on what to do with the rest of our weekend.

As far as cooking classes go, this is fairly entry level stuff, but when it comes to Roman cuisine, as Antonella reminds us, mastering the basics is very much the point – optimal ingredients, simple processes. Sit back, enjoy your prosecco, and get plenty of tasting in as you go along.

And at £90 a head, it’s not exactly peanuts, but then you’re there for several hours. If combining your dinner plans with an authentic nonna encounter – not to mention making some new friends – sounds like an ideal way to kick off your city break, Eating Italy does it supremely well.

The Cooking with Nonna Class is experienced and reviewed by Lawrence Hunt

 

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