Cooking Lessons in Varenna–The Deal of the Century

Oct 31, 2010 by

Pumpkin and Amaretti Tortellini--Oh. My. God.
My love affair with Chef Moreno's cooking classes began in April of this year, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. I had barely squeezed into Italy after a canceled flight due to the Iceland volcano, and so the whole trip had a slightly "I am one of the chosen ones" miraculous feel anyway. But something seemed unbelievably miraculous about this cooking class, which I found online: I learned how to make three different dishes and their sauces: asparagus risotto, handmade tagliatelle with a tomato zucchini sauce, and gnocchi drenched in Gorgonzola cream. Then I got to eat them all. I also ate parmigiano and salami during the break (see photo on right), and had an unlimited amount of wine. Plus he gave us all the recipes for four servings, AND he gave us free pick-up and drop-off at the nearest train station. By the end of the day I'd spent five hours learning about Italian cuisine and anecdotes about the region, I was full on incredible homemade pasta, and--I admit it--I was slightly tipsy. All for 35 Euros. So it's not hard to imagine why I wanted to take one of my best friends, Marsha, to take a lesson when she came for a visit from Romania.The magic of my last trip somehow carried over to this one--we barely, unbelievably really, made all our train connections and ended up at the restaurant early, drinking cappucinos and soaking up the warmth of the quaint and cavernous room. The Lago di Como region is in the north, just at the base of the Italian Alps. What I love best about Moreno is the way he tells stories about the gastronomy of the region, a story that's so important but often lost in the shadow of southern Italy's dominant cuisine. Here in the north, dishes like polenta and risotto are quite popular, butter and cream often replace olive oil, and grains like buckwheat and spelt are often used in pastas. While Chef Moreno says that the cuisine of the south is actually better than the cuisine of the north--I don't know if I entirely agree. They're just different, though after watching the amount of cream, butter, and handfuls of parmigiano he tossed into the saucepan, southern cuisine might be healthier. While he prepared Bocconcini di Vitello, a veal dish, Moreno told us--in English--how most Italians hardly ever ate meat, especially during the early years of the 20th century and before. "Her great-grandmother, once a month, would tell my grandmother to go to the butcher to buy 4 to 5 cents worth of meat leftovers [often organ meats]." When Moreno's grandmother returned with the meat, his great-grandmother would cook the tough organs for hours, softening them, and then serving the meat stew in a depression made in the center of a bowl of soft polenta. Moreno described how they'd grab a pinch of polenta and touch the meat with it and then eat it. The resulting name is Polenta Toccala (touch it). The grandparents and the babies usually got to eat the best pieces of meat--they were the ones who needed the nutrients the most. Even though Moreno's cuisine is fairly traditional, the restaurant reflects Chef Moreno's eclectic personality. A somewhat discomfiting portrait of Madonna hung on the wall behind Moreno to his right, and a collection of pastel mermaid paintings to his left. He likes Led Zeppelin's *Play for Change* CD and dreams about Route 66. Moreno's grandfather left Italy years ago shortly after the San Francisco earthquake, and ended up cutting down the redwoods in Sonoma and Marin counties in California--ironically the same redwoods I taught redwood ecology and preservation in, years ago. Moreno's highly fluent English has lots of charming flaws, though it's completely understandable, but it's always a bit of a surprise when he seasons his lectures with American slang but then commits somewhat jarring English mistakes. For example, when I told him I render the fat off my chicken and use the lard, he called me "old school." But when asked if he drank while cooking in his restaurant, he replied, "I saw a lot of bad drunkie chefs and I said myself, 'Don't do that, save your brain.'" While we learned how to make homemade tortellini with pumpkin and amaretti cookies and sage butter sauce, tagliatelle with an eggplant and tomato cream sauce, and risotto with fresh porcini mushrooms, we talked a bit more about the many influences on Italian cuisine. So many times I just think about how Italian food is everywhere--Italian restaurants line the streets in Seoul, Korea, for example--that I forget about the other cultures that shaped Italian cuisine first. The northern region was full of Austrian and Germans for centuries. As a result--who knows, in the end, who influenced whom--Northern Italians favor many of the same tastes and ingredients that their northern neighbors do: veal, creamy cheeses, poultry, stewed meats, risottos, and gnocchi. In the south, a lot of the cuisine has Spanish and North African influence, demonstrated by the strong flavors, and use of tomatoes chick peas and strong spices. By the end of our six hours, Marsha and I were stuffed with knowledge, wine, and pasta. It was another fabulous foray into Italian cuisine, and I can't think of a better way to spend 35 Euros. If you're in northern Italy--especially Milan--take one day to hop on the train to Varenna and arrange a cooking lesson or a dinner with Chef Moreno. He teaches cooking lessons during the week, and his intimate restaurant is open on the weekends with a reservation. You can contact him on his website here. In my opinion, it's the best deal in Italy.
Marsha, me in the middle, and Chef Moreno

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