By Carol Stigger
Rosario D’Esposito, chef at Sorrento’s first official cooking school, has the demeanor of an aunt delighted the family has convened for a typical Neapolitan dinner prepared in the school’s new millennium kitchen. Never mind that a British family walked from their hotel, that three American couples came from a cruise ship where they met a few days ago, and that a Canadian took an early train from Naples after his camera was stolen. The aroma of tomatoes, basil and garlic creates family among strangers who share a certain culinary ignorance.
At the school inside a citrus grove, we gather around a Carrara marble table with 12 rattan stools. Rosario presides behind the marble slab’s gas rings, restaurant-size skillets, and little bowls of ingredients, red, white and green like the Italian flag. "Aluminum skillets," she recommends. They distribute heat more evenly. Helping prepare family dinner is tradition, so aprons are handed around. The men break tradition by staying in the kitchen instead of strutting through the grove comparing yields. Chef’s hats are shelved. Perhaps they remind us of New Year’s Eve party hats. We bundled up that night, and we were cold for months after. Now we do not want to think about sleet, snow, sniffles or any other "s" words but sun, sandals and simmering sauces.
The meal begins with ricotta fritters. "To break your hunger," Rosario explains, followed by gnocchi in tomato sauce, Mediterranean-style fish and the classic Italian dessert, tiramisú. Rosario selects a student to quarter garlic for the fish sauce and cautions him not to dice it. "If dinner guests think they do not like garlic, they will pick out the pieces. You will feel like a thoughtful host." She winks. "The flavor remains." Black olives are scored to their pits for the same reason. Rinsing capers once is not enough, and she sends a student back to the sink to rinse the capers twice more. "To get out all the salt," Rosario says. "When the dish is done, add salt if it needs it, and just enough. You will know by the taste." Students exchange doubtful looks.
Canned tomatoes are a surprise in a country famous for fresh produce. "Peeled, plum tomatoes," says Rosario. "And don’t attack them with knife or masher; squeeze them between your fingers for the right texture." I wish she had not prepared the tomatoes before our arrival. I want to feel juice and seeds slipping between my fingers. Whoever decreed we should not play with our food was not Italian.
Gnocchi tastes as good as it smellsBut soon we are all playing with our food, mixing flour and water with our hands and kneading dough for fritters. "Stand up," says Rosario. "Put your shoulders into it." Pastry is not a sedentary activity, and the stressed-out Canadian applies his strength as if squashing the camera thief. We roll dough on marble from the quarry where Michelangelo selected the blocks he sculpted into the Pieta, David, and Moses. Our dough resembles kindergarten art projects. Rosario guides us until our pastry squares are square and one-quarter of an inch thick.
Satisfied, we sit down, but Rosario shakes her head. She puts a slice of margarine in the middle of each square and shows us how fold the dough like a hankie. We roll dough to work in the fat. "No butter," she says. "Crisco will work, but margarine is best." When the fat has become one with the flour, we roll dough into squares and make hankie folds again. "The dough must rest fifteen minutes. We kneed, roll, and fold dough a minimum of seven times with at least fifteen minutes rest between. More times are better." Rosario relents. "Today, three times." The marble has become a beach of flour with meandering finger prints, littered with rolling pins.
While our dough relaxes on little china plates, Rosario asks two men to peel potatoes she cooked earlier for the gnocchi. They ask for knives; she shakes her head. Peels detach smoothly under their fingers. Rosario asks for a student with strength. A slim woman says, "I’ve been working out for months just for our cruise." Rosario looks confused over the words "working out" and hands her a ricer. "You can mash, but ricing is finest for gnocchi."
We roll dough again. The Canadian has lost his grimace and works his dough with a grin. When dough is refolded on plates for a second siesta, we gather around Rosario’s skillet to learn the secret of the fish sauce. She puts the quartered garlic, scored olives, thrice-rinsed capers in the middle of the skillet, tears basil and parsley leaves and uses a serrated knife to add little shreds of onion. "To sweeten the garlic," she says. Last, she adds olive oil "Extra virgin, cold press. Add oil last so you have just enough to release the flavors." Over a medium heat, she stirs the ingredients with a wooden spoon and we are transported to ancient Rome. How could Tiberius have thrown guests off a cliff in nearby Capri if dinner smelled so inviting?
After a few minutes of gentle stirring, she explains that the sauce now can be tossed with pasta, but today the sauce is for fish. She adds boneless filets of white fish. Any white fish with firm flesh will work; but the fish is plaice, because it was the best of the dawn’s catch.
"You don’t use wine?" asks the Canadian, who no longer looks like he needs a liter.
"If you like, but after you turn the fish. Wine makes it too sweet for my taste." She holds up a bottle of white wine and raises her eyebrows. We defer to Rosario’s taste. She puts away the wine and adds what looks like too much water. Evidently she has heard the question before, so she explains, "Slow cooking for best taste. The water will steam away. Aromatic steam makes me want to grab a plate and fork, but I am distracted by the word tiramisú. Not my favorite dessert although it has been foisted on me by proud hostesses and insistent waiters from Chicago’s Little Italy to Rome’s Trastevere.
One student layers the Italian version of ladyfingers on a platter and another stirs dollops of Cool Whip into mascarpone. Rosario has dealt with alarmed cries of "not whipped cream?" before. "Too fattening," she says, averting her eyes from a portly student. "And too heavy for tiramisú." To the mascarpone she adds the extras that make this traditional dish her own: vanilla, lemon zest and a teaspoon of coffee. She guides a student in pouring coffee over the ladyfingers. "Espresso," she says emphatically. "Not," she pauses as if seeking a polite description, "brown water." She pauses again. "Terrible!" she cries, sacrificing cultural sensitivity to the goddess of flavor.
After the cream is layered over espresso soaked cakes, Rosario adds shaves of sweet, dark chocolate. Another layer and the dish is almost done. Rosario turns the smoothly iced finish I am so proud of into a gently churning sea "Tiramisú looks homemade," she says, "not pulled out of a box." She sprinkles coco over the dessert and sets it aside.
Rosario is stingy with the flour Making gnocchi is similar to making bread, and we learn how to knead just enough flour into the potatoes. She adds Parmesan cheese and explains it is for nutrition, not taste. She hands each student a half-inch thick slice of gnocchi and instructs us to roll it between our hands into thumb-size sausages. Some slices are too sticky. Rosario doles out flour like gold dust, warning that too much flour will ruin the gnocchi, our lunch, and may disturb Mt. Vesuvius.
The pastry now seems a less intimidating dish. We knead it again, roll it into squares and put teaspoons of ricotta filling on the dough. The filling was white, but now is salmon colored. Rosaria thought the tomato sauce for the gnocchi looked so good that she stirred a little into the ricotta. "Improvise," she says. But she does not improvise on the oil she uses to fry the fritters. It must be one-quarter olive oil and three-quarters peanut oil, no exceptions. After all the work on the pastry, we are heartened to learn that left-over pastry can be frozen, thawed, and kneaded "more is better" times without compromising quality.
She passes the hot fritters around. "Saltimbocca?" she asks. "Jump in mouth?" Whatever those fritters did in my mouth is best described the Italian way. To translate into English would require indecent innuendoes. Fellow students appear to be having similar moments of truth. One picks up a pencil and asks Rosario how to spell saltimbocca.
Rosario adds the gnocchi to boiling water, scoops them out as they rise to the surface, and stirs them into the tomato sauce. We dine with our backs to the mess we made producing our Neapolitan dinner. Each dish is as tasty as it looks and smells. Dessert is a surprise. Rosario’s tiramisú jumps in my mouth. "Saltimbocca," I murmur, amazed that my taste buds could be ravished twice in one meal.
Vacation agendas interfere with the Italian finish to a satisfying meal, a stroll. Only the Canadian and I have an hour to spare. We walk down a winding road to a bench overlooking the water far below. A citrus-scented breeze tempers hot sun. Across an inlet, a villa’s ochre plaster peels to shades of tans and yellows. Unpainted wood shutters hang haphazardly amid the vines. This aging princess of Sorrento commands a cliff that chugs into the bay, exposing roots of tenacious pines hosting choirs of rejoicing birds. Napoli, misty as an old dream, holds out its arms across the bay.
Sorrento cliff chugs into the bayThe Canadian leans over the railing with no hint of tension in his body. After a few minutes he serenely says, "God created Sorrento and thought, ‘It is good.’ She packed her colors, flavors, scents and songs and moved on to Mars."
"Are you a poet," I ask.
He wipes his eyes. "Math professor. Those fritters could turn a dolt into Dante."
Or was it the tiramisú?
Sorrento Cooking School is in a lemon and orange grove that has been making room for a moderately priced resort with swimming pool, bar and restaurant for forty years. Every year, a new bungalow or two sprouts amid the trees. The cooking school is a 2004 inspiration of Rafealla Esprito, resort manager. She noted that while some entrepreneurial women were offering cooking lessons in their homes, none had organized a cooking school in the Sorrento area such as those that dot the Tuscan landscape. She wants to give Neapolitan cooking equal time with her northern neighbor.
For more information on Sorrento Cooking School and other culinary vacation opportunities in Italy, call Cooking Vacations at 1-800-916-1152 or visit their Web site, www.cooking-vacations.com.