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Positano, Italy
web: cooking-vacations.com
email: info@cooking-vacations.com

By Marion Morra and Eve Potts, Correspondents

Cooking Vacations is the brainchild of a Bostonian Lauren Birmingham Piscitelli, whose grandmother was born in southern Italy and whose traditions have included cooking with family and friends. Cooking Vacations, with headquarters in Boston and an office in Positano, offers hands-on cooking classes and cultural tours in Italy’s 20 regions from Tuscany to the Amalfi Coast, to Sicily or Apulia and many places in between. You can learn to cook traditional Italian recipes with Italian chefs, visit the markets, vineyards and cultural landmarks or take classes in watercolor or ceramics. The programs vary from one to eight days.

Our Cooking Vacations Experience. We took Art and Cooking -- the eight day Ceramic Making and Cooking on the Amalfi Coast, which included three cooking classes with lunch or dinner following, and three ceramics classes with all needed supplies, seven nights in a bed and breakfast in Positano and a full course Chef’s Tasking Dinner at a local restaurant. Also included was an excursion to Amalfi and Ravello, olive oil tasting, chef’s apron and recipe booklet and roundtrip transfers to/from Naples Airport or Naples train station. And although the program runs from Saturday to Saturday, it also allows you to check in and start the program any day of the week, which was perfect for our plans.

We were picked up as promised, at the Naples airport, by a charming driver and our adventure began with a ride along the twisting, turning roads with spectacular views that took us to Positano. Lauren and Cooking Vacations Manager Melody Guerra greeted us with our welcome bag, including our chef’s apron, our itinerary for the program, a set of printed recipes for dishes we would cook, information on the area and landmarks -- and off we went to our Bed and Breakfast for check in and a relaxing rest.

Le Fenice Bed and Breakfast. If you want a spectacular location, where you will feel like you are part of a big extended family, La Fenice Bed and Breakfast is ideal. Named for the mythological Egyptian bird the phoenix, La Fenice is perched on a hill, with villas and cottages that gradually drop down by a series of steps, lush with flowers and plants, to the Tyrrhenian Sea. But the best part is the gracious owner, Costantino, his wife Angela and sons Giulio and Giocomo, who give you a warm welcome, offer incomparable service, propose great ideas for activities and restaurants, and do everything they can to make your stay special.

The rooms are in several buildings, spread up and down the cliff. They are simple, basic Italian style, with comfortable beds, some with large private terraces. You can enjoy swimming in the curved seawater pool carved into the mountain rock or take your sun, swim or boat ride at the property’s small private beach. There are several bougainvillea-wrapped terraces where breakfast and lunch are served. The location is for the fit. In our week’s stay, we found exercise was not a problem as our room was 100 steps down the cliff, with spectacular views all the way. The beach was another 250 steps down. Breakfast was served in the main villa, an additional 94 steps up.

Chef’s Tasting Dinner. Our first night featured our Chef’s Tasting Dinner at a restaurant on the beach, a 15-minute walk from La Fenice. What a wonderful start to a great week. We began with buschetta, followed by a large seafood appetizer that included grilled baby shrimp, fried calamari, calamari salad, and white anchovies. The basket of good Italian bread accompanied by wonderful olive oil for dipping was joined by hot pizza dough strips – forget the calories. We were next served pasta with clams and mussels followed by veal scaloppini (we could have had another fish dish but decided to try the veal instead.) Eve picked the profiteroles for dessert and Marion chose the limoncello cake topped with baby strawberries – both desserts were huge and wonderful. We walked back to La Fenice and down the 100 steps to our room – the forced exercise was exactly what we needed.

Our Cooking Classes. Our hands-on cooking classes were a delight. We worked with two local chefs, in their large and well-equipped restaurant kitchens. We thought we would probably be taught to make one dish at each session. Not at these lessons. At each lesson we made a full meal and a few extras--antipastos, pastas, main dish and dessert.

Our first class was with Chef Raffelle, whose restaurant is about a 15-minute walk down the hill to the center of town. Jerome and Liddy, a young couple from New York, joined us – they were taking the one-day class. Chef Raffelle, who just happened to be the cousin of Constantino, our bed and breakfast host, spoke rapid but understandable English. First we measured out and beat all the ingredients to make the dessert – Semifreddo al Croccontino, with mascarpone, toasted almonds made into a crunch, whipped cream and caramel sauce. Our next tasks were to make two kinds of pastas – scialatelli, which look like linguine but are shorter and heavier, and cavatelli, which are made by adding flour to boiling water. Following Chef Raffelle’s directions, we made the two pastas – both used two kinds of flour (regular and semolina) and eggs. We mixed and kneaded the dough, rolled out and shaped the pasta. We all took turns -- It was indeed a hands-on experience. We then diced the fresh heirloom tomatoes and added olive oil to make the bruschetta and worked on the two pasta sauces –a tomato sauce using small, sweet grape tomatoes, fresh Italian herbs, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses and a basil pesto sauce, made with basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and boiled garlic. When we had finished cooking, the four of us were seated at a table in the restaurant’s delightful vine-covered terrace, where we were served our meal. Each course came to our table beautifully plated and tasted divine.

We learned several lessons that day-- and in our following classes--about cooking in Italy. Everything is made from scratch, with very fresh ingredients. We did not see any canned goods at all. Fresh herbs and olive oil are used liberally. Garlic is used subtly, if at all. Even the pesto sauce, which was made for some 20 servings, used only one clove of garlic -- and that clove was boiled for 10 minutes to remove the acidity, then diced and added. When garlic is sautéed whole in olive oil, it is only lightly cooked (never allowed to burn) and is then removed. Garlic and onions are never used in the same dish.

Our second cooking class also was with Chef Raffelle. This time we were joined by a couple from Long Beach and two women who had been high school classmates and celebrating their 50th birthdays. Our cooking lessons that day included pizza, saffron rice balls, potato croquettes, and chocolate almond cake. We learned how to make the pizza dough, to let it rise and how to stretch it for cooking. The toppings for our individual pizzas were those of our own choosing. We put it in the hot wood-burning oven and soon we were sitting out on the terrace eating all our beautifully plated food, followed by the elegant chocolate almond cake.

Our last class was with owner Giovanna and Chef Luigi, at the most popular beachside restaurant, also within walking distance from La Fenice. A young man from Chicago and a couple from Colorado were our classmates as we labored to cook our appetizer grilled vegetables (zucchini, pumpkin [it’s delicious grilled!], mushrooms and eggplant) flavored with olive oil, peperoncino, and oregano, gnocchi alla sorrentina (potato dumplings with tomato and mozzarella), stuffed peppers (pepperoni ripiene), meatballs and for dessert - crème caramel. As before, we all worked to make everything from scratch – including trimming a steak and grinding the meat for the meatballs and stuffed, grilled peppers, making the pasta for the gnocchi and forming them by hand, carmelizing the sugar and making the crème for dessert. And again, we sat together at a table overlooking the blue water and were served another elegant meal.

We could not have had a better time. It was such fun cooking in restaurant kitchens, being taught by head chefs and watching the other chefs as they went about their daily tasks. The program is very well run, the chefs and staffs are friendly and caring and really let you work hands on. We learned a lot and loved everything that we made.

Our Ceramics Classes. Ceramics abound in this area of Italy, painted with broad-brush strokes and strong Mediterranean colors, especially blue and yellow. Vietri sul Mar, at the end of the coastal road east of Positano, is the center of Ceramics pottery production and houses a major ceramics museum (Museo della Ceramica).

Our ceramics studio, a 20-minute walk from La Fenice, on the Upper Road, houses master artisans Berenice and daughter Giovanna, both who speak good English. The course began with the mixing and molding of clay into coils, which were used to shape a large platter.

Luckily we had already had our two cooking classes where we shaped pasta into coils so we were experienced in this art. Both Berenice and Giovanna paid close attention to our work and helped guide us – they are caring and experienced teachers. When the platters were completed, we chose the glaze and by the end of our first class, we had each made a plate and painted it with glaze. Berenice then showed us other shapes and we chose several bowls and dishes, which would be baked and readied, for our painting at our next class.

The studio has the same feel as the rest of Positano … friendly, family oriented and social. As we began making our platters, a niece arrived with her husband and six-month old son. All work stopped as we were introduced, everybody gooed over the baby and talked about what we were doing, how our pottery was coming along, practiced their English and chatted. Her husband was a native of Samoa and they were planning a trip to visit his family. A while later, Giovanna’s boyfriend stopped by for a visit. He too spoke English and we chatted for a while.

During our next two classes, we painted our own original designs onto the bowls, plates and platters we had chosen. Berenice and Giovanna talked about some of the ancient designs as well as the more modern artwork now being done with Italian pottery. They explained the different glazes and helped us decide what we would sketch and paint on our pottery. We felt very productive as we made gifts for our friends at home. Berenice will fire all the pottery we made and pack it for shipment by Boxes, Etc. And as before, we met relatives and friends and after many hugs and double kisses, were made to feel like part of the family.

By Marion Morra and Eve Potts, Correspondents

We are sisters who have traveled extensively and have been in Italy a number of times. This was our most interesting trip ever. Our eight days were so full that we felt like we had been away for three weeks. We were embraced by everybody from Lauren and Melody, to the chefs and cooks in the restaurants, to our ceramics teachers, the drivers, other classmates, our bed and breakfast family. By the end of the visit, we had met more people than we have ever met when we traveled before. This is a special trip and a special place that beckons us to return.