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In an Italian kitchen, Mamma knows best

Three generations bond over classes in pasta, tiramisu and other specialties of Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria. For Mom, who is all thumbs in the kitchen, the most valuable lesson is that it's fun to mix food and family.

November 20, 2011|By Amanda Jones, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Amanda Jones
Amanda Jones (lubbvzpd20111115141503/600/600x330 )

Reporting from Sori, Italy — "Mamma says don't punch it," Carlo Montioni says, translating for his mother in heavily accented English.

"You're always too heavy-handed!" my own mother says, piling on.

"Let me show you," my daughter Sofia says, sighing and shoving me aside.

PHOTOS: Cooking lessons in Italy

I am in the middle of a cooking lesson in our rented Umbrian villa, and "Mamma," or Caterina Felici, is trying to save my forsaken kitchen soul. We are making pasta. Apparently, one must not pound on pasta dough because that makes it chewy.

Mamma, tiny, with a creased face and shining eyes, looks every part the Italian mother. She smiles at me encouragingly, the way you smile at a child who writes her letters backward.

Some months ago, my daughters Indigo, 13, and Sofia, 11, who are passionate cooks, suggested we spend a vacation in a place where we could take cooking classes. "I might even grow if you learn to cook better," said Sofia, the short one.

"The classes sound perfectly horrible, but I might consider Italy," I replied. And then I put it out of my mind.

Two weeks later, Sofia sat down in my office with a stack of printouts. "I've researched, and Parker Villas has great rentals, and they also have cooking classes. And guess what? Mopsie (my mother) and Grandma (my mother-in-law) want to come!"

So it was that last summer, I spent three weeks in Italy, at three villas, in three cooking classes, with three generations of women. It was arranged by Parker Villas, the rental company my prepubescent had found.

When I first called Mario Scalzi, the Italian American owner of Boston-based Parker, he laughed at my plight. I explained that my daughters and their grandmothers were excellent cooks. I was the skipped generation, the lost generation.

"We don't want hordes of tourists," I told him. "We want countryside and little towns."

"How about Tuscany, Umbria and coastal Liguria?"

Mario did us proud. Our first villa was near Montefalco in central Umbria. Miles of sunflowers were in full-faced bloom, and despite the fact that it was July, the nearby towns were calm..

Villa Spago was a six-bedroom stone house surrounded by olive groves and buttery sunlight, and it had a pool. The walls were thick, the light inside filtered to create the effect of a Renaissance painting.

Mamma arrived for our first lesson laden with fresh vegetables, flour, meat, olive oil, garlic and wine. She had bought the vegetables at the morning market, grown the garlic, a friend had made the wine and Carlo had pressed the olive oil. Mamma spoke not a lick of English, so Carlo translated.

"Today, we teach you how to make pasta pomodoro, stuffed peppers, breadcrumb zucchini, mushroom caps, faro salad, turkey and pork over the fire, and for dessert, Pavesini cookies with mascarpone."

"Is that a normal Umbrian lunch?"

"Of course," Carlo said, surprised that I was surprised. "This is how Mamma feeds our family every day." My children stared at me. I avoided eye contact.

Our first task was to knead the pasta dough, and I was an immediate and colossal failure. My mother stood next to me tsk-tsking, and Mamma patted her arm as if to say, "Children don't always turn out the way we'd hoped." I moved on to trying to stuff the mushroom caps with garlic, salt, diced mushroom stems, olive oil and parsley. Cecilia, Mamma's helper, came over and gently removed the knife from my hand to show me how to dice the stems properly. Sofia, on the other hand, was dicing like a Benihana chef.

Although I had dreaded it, the class was in fact loads of fun and filled with raucous laughter, mostly directed at me. But the best part of the day was when we sat down with the Montionis to eat at a long, wooden trestle table in the garden. The food was simple, fresh and spectacular. The pasta was far superior to store-bought, despite my bruising effect.

I may have culinary shortcomings, but I am an accomplished driver; our villa was within a two-hour drive of Spoleto, Orvieto, Todi, Montefalco and Terni, all fantastically well-kept medieval hill towns with great restaurants, linen manufacturers, ceramics shops, wineries, olive groves and Gothic churches.

Every day, we'd cook, shop or discover a new hill town. After a week, we made the three-hour drive to Villa Tramonto in Val di Chiana near Cetona in eastern Tuscany.

Tuscany in the summer is usually jammed with tourists, but Val di Chiana was not. Villa Tramonto was the real Tuscan farmhouse experience. A five-bedroom house, it was set on a hill overlooking the pastoral valley. It had been lived in for generations by the Aggravi family, which now rents the large house to Parker guests.

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