Aka, the best four meals of my life.
Want to take a cooking class in Florence?
If the answer is yes—and what else could it be—let me point you in the right direction. The one where you’ll learn true Italian cooking with the exact right balance of instruction and independence. The one where the resulting flavors linger in your mouth and your memory long after class comes to an end. And the one where you’ll learn recipes that are delicious, yet doable—ones you can actually repeat back home.
I took a cooking class in Florence in June.
And then I passed back through Florence in July, on my return trip to Croatia. The reason? There were two. One was to retrieve the Kindle that I absentmindedly left in the sleeping loft of my San Frediano Airbnb. (I could have had it shipped, but where’s the fun in that?) The other was to reconnect with Antonella La Macchia—my Italian cooking mentor, and now also my friend.
When I explained to Antonella that I would be back in Europe sooner than expected, my life path taking an unexpected turn, she insisted we meet for a drink and a big hug. I couldn’t resist—I needed both.
From the start, I knew that Antonella would be an ideal instructor.
I didn’t want to take a typical touristy cooing class, filled with other hungry Americans.. I wanted something smaller, more authentic, and vegetarian specific. As always when looking for off-the-beaten path destination tips, I searched one of my favorite blogs. Sure enough, Girl in Florence had attended a cooking class. I reached out to the chef she studied with, but Giulia was unavailable during the dates I had in mind. I asked for a referral, which is how I landed in Antonella’s kitchen on a hot-as-blazes June day. It was undoubtedly the right place.
I knew from our email exchanges in advance of my trip that Antonella and I would get on well. We wrote back and forth about our favorite food styles and flavors, and she suggested a variety of meals to make as part of a private vegetarian pasta master class. I was invited to cook in her home, an apartment in a modern part of Florence. It’s easily reached by tram, but I chose to walk the two miles from my accommodation. I knew the moment that I saw Antonella calling to me from her upstairs kitchen window that we were bound to become friends. Some women—many in fact—are like that. You bond in a way that is immediate, surprising only because it is not so.
But enough about friendship; let’s get to the food.
How to describe the fabulous five-plus hours that I spent in Antonella’s kitchen? There was an education in flours, and the characteristics of each kind that influence the different types of pasta. There was learning to use the pasta machine, to fll and cut ravioli, to roll perfect ridges in gnocchi, and to form tortellini around my little finger. There was prepping and cooking an array of fillings and seasonal vegetables for toppings and sauce. There was conversation, espresso, and plenty of good red wine. (“Wine is red,” said Antonella, approving my choice of Chianti over a chilled white.) There was getting to know Antonella’s gorgeous family while sharing our four-course pasta feast. There was even dessert, after which I wandered in a dream-like food daze back home.
Our menu looked like this:
- Tortellini filled with gorgonzola and pear, tossed in olive oil and white truffle paste
- Ravioli filled with ricotta and lemon zest, with fresh asparagus sauce
- Tagliolini with zucchini and fresh mint, on a bed of steamed zucchini flower
- Potatoes gnocchi with Sicilian pesto
Without a doubt, they were the four best pasta dishes I’ve ever devoured—and I lent a hand in creating each one!
Since “going nomad” I haven’t yet had a chance to practice all that I learned (a pasta machine would be far too heavy to haul around Europe). But at home in Lumbarda I do have a hand blender, a gnocchi board, a beautiful basil plant, and a farmer’s market with to-die-for tomatoes—all the necessities for the gnocchi and Sicilian pesto dish.
There’s something intimidating about the first time.
The first time you try to reproduce the recipe of a pro is intimidating. I felt a duty to live up to the instruction I received, to create a dish worthy of Antonella’s approval. Did I do everything perfectly? No. But my first solo go at gnocchi still turned out spectacular. It’s such an authentic, outstanding recipe—and really the simplest of the four to make. Antonella invited me to share it here. For the others, you’ll need to take a cooking class in Florence with Antonella herself. You can reach her here.
Meanwhile, let’s see if you can make a plate as pretty as mine!
1 kg potatoes
200 g flour
Fill a large pot with cold water, salt the water, add the potatoes and cook for 40 minutes. Remove the potatoes from the water and peel them. Mash the potatoes directly on a wooden board into a soft mound, add the beaten egg. Add the flour gradually—the dough should be moist but not sticky. Cut the dough into pieces and roll each into a snake. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4 inch. Dust with a bit of flour if necessary and set the gnocchi aside.
Note: You don’t necessarily need a gnocchi board—the pasta pieces can remain smooth or you can press them with a fork. But my advice is to roll each piece along a floured gnocchi board before setting aside. Your pasta will look more authentic, plus the ridges collect even more of the sauce.
10 ripe tomatoes, skin and seeds removed, cut into quarters
1 garlic clove
40 g almonds
10 basil leaves
1 tablespoon grated pecorino cheese
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Put the tomatoes in a colander, sprinkle with little salt and set aside for half an hour to eliminate the excess of water. Then put in a blender the tomatoes, basil leaves, pepper, cheese, and garlic and blend until creamy. Add oil and almonds and mix again. Adjust salt and pepper.
Note: In class, and again when I made the pesto at home, we roasted the tomatoes to enhance the flavor even more. Use 20 or so cherry tomatoes. Cut them in half and scoop out most of the seeds to eliminate excess water. Roast with a little olive oil and salt for 30-ishminutes at 180 Celsius.