As in most traditional Italian families, life in the Mauriello home revolved around cooking and eating.
By age 10, I was
learning to prepare my family's recipes, watching in awe as Mom and Dad
flamboyantly tossed spices into a saucepan. As I grew, so did my
obsession. I married, raised a child, wrote a cookbook that preserved four
generations of my family's recipes, taught Italian cooking and served as a
guest chef at small dinner parties.
Still, I didn't feel complete.
I needed to broaden my repertoire, improve my technique. I had go to the
source. I had to go to a cooking school in Italy.
I found scores of
them in nearly every region of Italy, most in Tuscany. But my family is
not Tuscan; we're Neapolitan. My father was from Ischia, an island in the
Bay of Naples, where I still have family, and my grandparents on my
mother's side were from Palma Campania, southeast of Naples. Going to
Tuscany seemed treasonous. I would have to find a school in southern
My online research took me to "The Guide to Cooking
Schools," which led me to the Mami Camilla Cooking School and Bed and
Breakfast, which specializes in Neapolitan and Mediterranean cuisine. It
is owned and operated by the Longo family, which holds classes in its home
in the Sorrento suburb of Sant' Agnello. Compared with other schools, Mami
Camilla seemed to offer more intensive training, flexibility in class
schedules and more for my money.
I arrived in Rome on a rainy
morning in late April. Two days later, I boarded the EuroStar Italia for
the two-hour rail trip to Naples. From there, I caught the
Circumvesuviana, a local train that runs between Naples and
It was a 15-minute walk through Sant' Agnello to Mami
Camilla, where I was met by Giuseppe, chef Biagio Longo's 26-year-old son,
who manages the school. The first thing he said in fluent English was
"Are you hungry?" There was a generous slice of a vegetable tart left over
I wouldn't start classes until the next day, but I was
invited to join the students and guests for dinner that night. Meals were
served by candlelight at two long rustic tables in a glass-enclosed room
that overlooked the garden.
The students had prepared an appetizer
of grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil; a pasta course of ravioli
stuffed with sautιed artichokes, zucchini and fava beans in a light
bιchamel sauce; a fish course of fillet of sole; and chocolate soufflι for
dessert. The local red wine was served in pitchers that were continually
replenished. The chef's daughters, Odilia, 21, and Laura, 14, served each
course separately, as is customary in Italy. (After three days of such
dinners, I gave up lunch entirely.)
My room was a sparsely furnished cottage, about 11
feet square, graced by a functional bathroom and air conditioning. Yet it
felt charming, with a red-and-white print bedspread, matching curtains and
a window that looked over the garden.
As I fell asleep that first
night, I wondered whether I could handle the workload. In signing up for a
two-week intensive, semi-professional program, which included several
extra classes in specialty foods, I would be cooking for a minimum of four
hours sometimes as many as seven every day. There would be no time for
day trips by ferry to Capri. No Amalfi coastline drives. No exploring the
ruins of Pompeii.
But I would be able to take quick, restorative
walks into Sorrento. The next day, I spent a few hours along the main
street, the Corso Italia, packed with shops offering trendy, expensive
designer goods, hand-painted pottery, inlaid wood and elegant lace table
linens, as well as restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. The town center,
Piazza Tasso, was usually packed with people, except during the lunch
break from 1 to 3 p.m.
Off the piazza were narrow lanes and endless
stairs, which led me down to the Marina Piccola. From there I could watch
ferries and hydrofoils making runs to Amalfi, Positano and Naples, or the
islands of Capri and Ischia.
While tourists were popping in and out
of fancy boutiques, I gravitated to the kitchen and cooking stores. There
I found nirvana, Italian style: pasta machines, ravioli cutters in various
shapes and sizes, espresso makers, oil and vinegar cruets.
returned from town, I still had about an hour before my class, so I
explored the rustic grounds: more than an acre of slightly terraced land
that holds the Longo home, plus three guest buildings and two cottages for
up to 56 guests. The buildings are surrounded by gardens, where Longo
harvests fruits and vegetables for his classes. Herbs, beans, lettuce and
artichokes were ready for picking; rows of tomato plants were showing
yellow flowers; and citrus trees were heavy with fruit.
p.m., I reported to the kitchen, a sunny room with white bistro tiles and
a white plaster fireplace over which well-worn copper pots hang. The 6- by
8-foot marble island in the center provided ample workspace and was the
envy of virtually every student. I was given an apron and introduced to my
classmates: Hisa and Makiko, women from Japan who spoke fluent English;
and Jill, originally from Boston but living in London.
was an imposing figure a heavyset man of 6 feet, 4 inches, with large
hands that seemed more suited to a construction worker than a chef. But
those powerful hands could turn out the most delicate pastas with great
speed and flair, and they seemed impervious to oven heat and hot,
Longo has 30 years of culinary experience in Italy,
England, Belgium and South America. He opened the first of his three
restaurants two in Sorrento and one in Naples in 1982. In 2002, at the
urging of his wife, Camilla, he left the restaurant business to open the
cooking school, which he named in her honor.
In our first class, we
four students would prepare soufflι di cavolo (soufflι with
cauliflower, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and grated Parmesan and Swiss
cheeses); orecchiette alla leccese (ear-shaped pasta served in a
sauce of garlic, anchovies and broccoli); calamari alla scarola
(squid stuffed with escarole, mushrooms, raisins and pine nuts, cooked in
white wine); and maddalene (a buttery cookie) served with
We began with the pasta, carefully mixing flour and water to
make the dough and rolling it into long, round lengths. It was like
playing with clay. We tried to imitate the chef's technique.
what I do," he would say, flipping a small piece of pasta off his thumb to
create the desired shape. "Do you understand?" We nodded.
When we performed to his satisfaction, we were rewarded with
Another reward for our efforts in the kitchen was
the evening meal. Not only were the repasts we made wonderful but the
conversation was lively not one mention of politics, the war in Iraq,
terrorism or the economy. During my stay, Mami Camilla hosted guests from
Japan, Australia, France, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, South Africa,
New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada and the U.S.
When you're not familiar with a kitchen, mistakes are
bound to happen. I made one during one of my specialty classes, where I
learned to make limoncello, the liqueur of Sorrento.
reported to the kitchen, donned my apron and waited for Longo. I reached
for the ever-present bottle of mineral water on the counter and poured
myself a glass. One big gulp, and I knew I was in trouble. This was not
water but 95-proof grain alcohol.
My mouth and throat were on fire,
my gums vibrating. I rushed to the refrigerator, found a real bottle of
water and slugged it down as fast as I could. When Longo arrived, I told
him what had happened.
"Oh no!" he exclaimed, explaining that he
used an empty water bottle to measure out the liter of alcohol used to
make the luscious lemony limoncello.
Then Longo handed me a
plastic bag and we headed to the garden to pick lemons. We needed about
two dozen to flavor the alcohol. Together, we peeled the lemons and boiled
sugar and water to make syrup. When the syrup was cool, we combined the
lemon, syrup and alcohol, poured it into a tall bottle and set it to rest
on the counter for six days. It was ready in time to share with my fellow
guests on my last night.
You can't go
to an Italian cooking school and not make pizza. We would bake ours in a
wood-burning oven, which Longo had packed with kindling and tree branches.
"When the roof of the oven is white, it's ready," he explained. It took
about an hour.
While we waited, he showed us the correct technique
for "rolling out" the dough, except we didn't roll it. We used our
fingertips to push it into shape, turning it over several times as we
worked. Then it got tricky. Ever so gently and without tearing the dough,
we were instructed to lift it and rotate it over the backs of our hands,
gently stretching it to its final size. One by one we made our pizzas
some shaped better than others.
Longo then explained the technique
for placing the pizza in the oven and getting it off the long-handled,
shovel-like peel without disturbing the topping. "Watch," he said. "Lay
the peel at an angle, like this. Then pull the peel back a little at a
time. Never back and forth."
As the pizzas were pulled from the
oven, we topped them with sprigs of fresh basil, and on a sunny patio we
ate them and drank beer.
Fish and seafood are staples in southern
Italian cuisine, and we prepared several varieties: sole, swordfish, bass,
shrimp, calamari and octopus.
I've never been particularly
squeamish about any type of food, but as Longo lifted three octopuses from
boiling water and handed them to me, I had visions from the 1954 movie
"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" of sea monsters attacking submarines. I was
instructed to cut the tentacles in half-inch pieces and slice the head
"I can do this" became my mantra. Once I became
accustomed to what seemed like thick, heavy rubber bands with plungers, I
was able to overcome my fears. And, of course, later I had no trouble
eating the wonderful marinated salad the octopuses had
After a few days at Mami Camilla, I felt as though I were
home. Its sounds, rhythms and smells transported me back to my parents'
home in the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up. Familiar Neapolitan
expressions rang through the house and awakened the corner of my brain
where my childhood memories were stored. I began to understand more and
more Italian phrases, smiling at their
"Capito?" Understood? Camilla Longo would ask.
"Sμ," came my reply, which was met with smiles.
accepted so fully that I was handed the phone to talk to English-speaking
callers if Giuseppe or his assistant were out of the office.
end of my two-week stay, I was physically exhausted but emotionally
exhilarated. The trip had satisfied my obsession; I came home with 60 new
recipes and a cadre of new friends.
But new hungers have
All I want to do these days is cook or plan the menus I'm
going to cook. I find myself looking at my watch, cal- culating the time
in Sorrento, wondering what students will be preparing for dinner that
evening. I've already bought my ticket to return in May to Mami
Marjorie Mauriello Baker's website is http://www.myneapolitankitchen.com/
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Cooking by the
From LAX, Delta, American,
Continental, Northwest, British, Aer Lingus, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa
and US Airways have connecting service (change of plane) to Rome.
Restricted round-trip fares are $898 until Nov. 1, $548 Nov. 1-Dec.
Mami Camilla, 4 Via Cocumella,
Sant' Agnello di Sorrento, 80065, Naples, Italy; 011-39-081-878-20-67, http://www.mamicamilla.com/ . The
school has custom, flexible cooking classes, from single classes to
monthlong courses with internships in local restaurants. It also offers
escorted trips to local olive-oil and cheese factories and a winery, as
well as half-day trips to Naples and other surrounding cities and the
island of Capri. The school also functions as a restaurant, giving
students the opportunity to experience cooking at a professional level. I
paid $1,789 for my intensive two-week course, room, breakfast, dinner and
cooking classes. (Prices may vary depending upon season.) You may also
book private classes with the chef for $174. One-day group sessions are
For non-cooking guests: Mami Camilla also has clean,
simple accommodations for guests who are not cooking; doubles $87. Evening
meals are included in course fees, but for $19, non-cooking guests and
tourists can enjoy a four-course meal, including all the wine you can
drink and the traditional after-dinner drink, limoncello.
Reservations must be made by 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m. seating.
"The Guide to Cooking Schools," $24.95, ShawGuides;
(212) 799-6464, http://www.shawguides.com/
Sorrento/Sant' Agnello tourist information:
Italian Government Tourist Board: (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com/
Marjorie Mauriello Baker