Italy on the Menu

A culinary class in Bologna takes students from market to table, from tortellini to biscotti, and it's hands-on all the way.


Cover Story

October 05, 2003|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Today was Pasta Day at the International School of Italian Food and Wine, in Bologna, Italy.

Mary Beth Clark was here. She's our teacher. It's her school.

Andrea Merlini was here. He's the executive chef from Milan who, with Mary Beth, had been working with us on the art of turning mere ingredients into actual cuisine.

Franca was here. I didn't get her last name, but she's the pasta chef from Tuscany, and she did the dough.

My four fellow students were here.

Earlier in the day, as we were warming up by creating (trust me on this) the world's best-ever chocolate biscotti, it had been a day of triumph.

"See the way Alan is making an arc so it automatically feeds the hazelnuts into the knife? That's perfect," Mary Beth had said.

I blushed with pride. But the tortellini were another story.

Tortellini are tiny hand-formed rings of filled pasta. You start with a square of dough, put a little bit of filling (finely ground meat or cheese or a combination) in the middle, fold the square up to cover the filling and, using a thumb as a "form," sort of mold it into a, um, tortellino.

Millions of Italians, and millions of those who would be Italians, can do this in the dark.

I couldn't get it. Whatever emerged from my thumb and fingers, while not entirely a disaster, nevertheless was certainly not a tortellino.

Andrea saw a man in need of help. Before I continue, understand that Andrea's English is a whole lot better than my Italian. But to capture the intensity of this particular exchange, and at the risk of offending someone, I'm going to have to quote Andrea exactly as he spoke.

I've just created a tortellino that looks like a deformed navel, and Andrea has stepped in.

"Meester. Meester. Look me. Watch."

Andrea created a perfect tor-tellino. It took him roughly 0.3 seconds.

"Now, you ..."

Mine was not a tortellino. A small kreplach, maybe. Andrea was not happy.

"Meester. Meester. Watch me." Perfect again. He showed it to me. "Like this."

This time, mine was a pierogi. The whole room was watching.

"Meester. Meester. What's the matter? Look me. Look."

His: Another magnificent tortellino.

Mine: Like no known dumpling.

This was Day 3 of my first attempt at combining travel with cooking school.

It had been my idea. As a kid, I'd been hooked on cooking by one Francois Pope, who, with sons Frank and Bob, starred in a TV show called Creative Cookery. One day, pretending to be Bob, I had prepared, all by myself, a cake that was absolutely inedible.

Years later, I created a dish that a roommate dubbed "goop." The roommate refused to try it.

I still make it today. It is, officially and forever, "goop." My current roommate, who married me several years ago, refuses to try it.

Buoyed by all this, I decided it was time to go to the next level.

Mary Beth Clark, who claims she's 52 but looks 20 years younger, opened her first cooking school 26 years ago in New York. Being from Green Bay, Wis., of Danish, Irish, Austrian, Russian and German stock, that first cooking school was, naturally, Chinese.

Her first Italian cooking school opened here, in Bologna, in 1987. It has been at its present location, in a 15th-century palazzo with a restaurant-quality kitchen, since 1998.

"I'm a teacher," she said. "My goal as a teacher is to get people to open up, to open up their creativity, to get them to expand."

Speaking of expanding -- here was lunch on Pasta Day:

Antipasti (Parmigiano-Reggiano with balsamic vinegar, fresh veggies with olive oil, and bruschetta); tortellini en brodo (tortellini, in broth), tortelloni (fatter tortellini) with olive oil and sage, and gnocchi with Parmigiano-Reggiano; fresh porcini mushrooms braised with garlic, white wine and other things, served with tagliolini (linguine-like noodles); feather-light Bolognese lasagna; plus dessert -- strawberries, nectarines and raspberries with butter, honey and balsamic vinegar, topped with grated chocolate, accompanied by those chocolate biscotti.

There was also wine -- a still white, a sparkling white, a lovely red and a sparkling Brachetto d'Aqui to enhance the fruit and biscotti.

The wines were bottled by other people. The rest we had sliced, chopped, kneaded, rolled, cut, cooked or, at the very least, helped assemble that morning and early afternoon.

"A collaborative effort," Andrea said through a translator.

A collaboration of necessity.

"We don't cook," Mary Beth had warned at the beginning, "we don't eat."

Just three hours after this carb orgy, we each made almost from scratch -- and then, somehow, ate -- our own pizzas, baked in the genuine wood-burning stove of a genuine Italian pizzeria, under the guidance of a genuine pizza-maker from Bangladesh.

And the next day, somehow, after all that food, we were ready for more.

Bologna moment

We're all in the Basilica di Santo Stefano, parts of which date to the eighth century, a complex built atop an even older temple.

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