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Cook with the Divas in Florence

Ann J. Reavis

Nothing enhances a vacation in Florence for the food lover and cook more than a chance to squeeze the tomatoes, crush the garlic and roll the pasta dough under the tutelage of one of the three divas of Tuscan cooking: Judy Witts Francini, Sharon Oddson, and Benedetta Vitali. Whether your stay in Tuscany is for a week or for a month, one of these experienced teachers has the perfect class for you.

All three women are long-term residents of Florence - Benedetta was born here and Judy, an American, and Sharon, a Canadian, have both lived here for over twenty years. Benedetta and Sharon run popular Florentine restaurants and in the early '80s Judy gave up her job as the French pastry chef at one of San Francisco's most elite hotels to move to Florence to learn to cook all things Italian. Although they all are dedicated to the Tuscan ideal of cooking with great simplicity and the best seasonal ingredient, their classes are vastly different. This provides you with a broad choice to fit your particular needs.

Judy Witts: The Marriage of Market and Kitchen

Divina Cucina is the new name of the school Judy Witts started in 1988. A former Californian, Judy designs her small classes (six students maximum) around the huge Florence Mercato Centrale (Central Market) that looms across the piazza from the windows of her teaching kitchen. At 11:00 a.m., after listening to the desires of her students ("let's make ravioli", "I want to learn how to make tiramisu", "I'm vegetarian", "can we fry stuffed zucchini flowers?"), the class heads off to tour the market and to shop for the fresh ingredients they will use that day.

First, there is a stop at the Sicilian "Mamma's" tiny cafe for a glass of sparkling wine and a couple of antipasti (maybe grilled eggplant, marinated bell peppers, and fried polenta). "Never shop hungry," Judy says.

While determining the freshest ingredients and jointly planning a menu around them, the class stops to taste extra virgin olive oil and thirty-year aged balsamic vinegar at one stand and to try a variety of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses at another. Upstairs, they choose the best of the fruits and vegetable, learn the uses of the five varieties of artichokes, and taste an array of olives.

Next stop after the market is Casa del Vino, a small enoteca (wine bar) for consultation with the owner Gianni on the proper wines to match each course. Finally, on the way back to the teaching kitchen, Judy pauses at her favorite forno to select a variety of breads -- salt less pane toscano, schiacciata (flat bread topped with olive oil and salt, and maybe, pugliese (salted high, round loaves).

Back in the kitchen, everyone dons aprons and the real work begins. At this point many classes split up into the doers and the watcher/tasters. Judy is happy to accommodate either. Her classes are a good mix of demonstration by the teacher and hands-on chopping, kneading and stirring by the students. "No sipping the wine until the knives are put away," Judy warns. Throughout class, she keeps up a steady stream of instruction on how recipes can be changed or ingredients altered to take care of the different situations students may find when they return home. Many students jot notes in the back of Judy's cookbook, a gift with the apron.

Each class makes at least one antipasto, a primo (usually pasta or soup), a main dish, one or two side dishes, and a dessert. Tasting starts as soon as the first dish is done and continues throughout the afternoon as more delicacies come to the table; the class frequently ends after 4:30 pm. Judy discusses each wine as it is pared with the appropriate food. Finally, during the wrap-up discussion, Judy will offer a taste of her home-made digestivo, a liquor made of barely ripe walnuts, or a chilled bottle of limoncello she makes with whole grain alcohol, sugar and the rind of Sicilian lemons. Each participant take home Judy's cookbook, "From the Market to the Table", and an exclusive Divina Cucina apron.

Judy Witts offers one, two or three-day courses. Each class costs $300 per person, with a muti-day discount of $250 per additional class. She also can arrange tours of Florence and the Chianti wine region. Her web site has extensive information about her classes and a food lover's guide to Florence and Tuscany -- www.divinacucina.com.

Sharon Oddson: Tuscan with a Twist

Canadian by birth, but Italian by predisposition, Sharon Oddson arrived in Florence in her early twenties, fell in love and started a restaurant, Trattoria Garga, with her new Florentine husband. Thirty years later, Sharon conceived La Cucina di Garga, a school that, like the restaurant, serves up Tuscan cooking with a twist. Classes are taught in the Garga kitchen while the restaurant is closed. Students get their first impression that this may not be the food "La Mamma" used to make when they step inside the front door. Sharon and her husband are artists and the walls of the trattoria blossom with their paintings, vivid and abstract. This is not the rustic Tuscan joint with typical straw-bottomed wine bottles and whole prosciutto hanging from the walls. No, this is a place where Tuscan tradition is updated, but still retains its color and warmth.

Sharon and her assistant Mims offer each student an apron and a folder with the day's recipes and descriptions of the wines that will be served. Then it's off to the kitchen where the class (minimum of four students and maximum of twelve) will prepare a four-course meal. Although the recipes are innovative, when it comes to ingredients, Sharon is a traditionalist -- only the best and the freshest will do. Sharon and Mims do the shopping at the local markets and the results await the students as they arrive. Sharon emphasizes the importance of using extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and Tuscan wines as the base for each dish, and also, instructs her students on the proper utensils for an Italian kitchen and how to use them.

The recipes for the classes come from the restaurant, where dishes, such as Il Magnifico (pasta with a decadent creamy lemon sauce), artichoke risotto, grilled black cabbage, bottarga di muggine (pasta with shad roe), cod in spicy tomato sauce, and lamb cooked in rosemary and pink peppercorn, are served in season. Mims has a flair for hand-made pasta ("I think of it in a meditative Zen sort of way.") and she steps in to help students with the fresh eggs and flour that transform into tagliatelle or ravioli. Sharon directs the rest of the class starting with the antipasto, and continuing with the pasta sauce, a veal, chicken or fish dish, and the dessert, perhaps an intense chocolate tort or a light ricotta cheesecake.

When the class comes to the table, Mims turns the discussion to the wine that goes with each dish. Over lunch, after a critique of each course, the conversation frequently turns to other dishes the students wish to make at home and Sharon is happy to share her thirty years of experience by providing recipes, cooking tips and advice on the proper ingredients and utensils to use, as well as whether students should buy them in Italy or whether they can be found at home.

Sharon plans to start offering classes also out of her apartment with its brand new kitchen in Via dei Belle Donne in 2004.

Lessons at Cucina di Garga start at 10:00am and usually end at about 3:00pm. Each class costs 155 euro per person. More information about the classes can be obtained from the web site www.garga.it or by writing to La Cucina del Garga, Via del Moro 48\r, 50123 Firenze, Italy, Tel\fax: 39 055 211396.

Benedetta Vitali: Experience a Tuscan Kitchen in Action

Chef-owner of Zibibbo (and former co-owner and founder of Cibreo), Benedetta Vitali has a passion for Tuscan cooking and although she has a 24/7 lifestyle with the management of Zibibbo, her determination to share her zeal has led her to write a beautifully illustrated cookbook, "Soffritto: Tradition and Innovation in Tuscan Cooking," and to open her restaurant kitchen to cooking classes.

Sunny and bright, with a red wooden floor and huge windows that open onto a leafy grove, Zibibbo has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood restaurant. Benedetta wanted to attract both Florentines and foreigners so she situated Zibibbo out of the center of Florence, just off Piazza di Careggi at the northern edge of town. A huge bulletin board in the hall leading to the dining room tells you just what kind of place this is - it's covered with pictures of the cooks and staff, their families and friends and, near the bottom, there are a few artworks by children who have eaten here in the past.

In the 2003 book "The Food Lover's Guide to Florence" by Emily Wise Miller, Benedetta is quoted as saying "With Zibibbo I wanted to create a restaurant where Florentines could come and find some familiar dishes, but also some more unusual ones, like spaghetti alle sarde from Sicily. I love southern Italian cooking - I love the sea, the sun, the fish - and it was a natural progression that here at Zibibbo we began to integrate more Mediterranean dishes and even some Middle Eastern ones. Our philosophy was always to cook with the best ingredients: great quality and great simplicity."

Benedetta offers two options for cooking courses. The first is a five-day intensive course where a maximum of two students arrive each morning at 8:30 a.m. and work with the kitchen staff preparing dishes for the luncheon menu and finishing with a wrap-up lunch with Benedetta at 12:30 p.m. The weeklong course is meant for those interested in working in a professional kitchen and the teaching definitely hands-on. Benedetta and two other cooks teach the classes (some in Italian with English translation as needed), starting with the preparation of soffritto (the finely minced onion, celery and carrot base for Tuscan savory sauces) and stocks. Students then learn the basics of frying and roasting meats. One day is reserved for the preparation fish dishes and another for pastas and desserts.

Also, Benedetta offers up to six students a Saturday morning course for four consecutive weeks, again commencing at 8:30 a.m. and finishing with lunch. These Saturday sessions focus on various parts of the menu - antipasti, pastas, meat dishes, fish dishes and dessert. The Saturday course contains more observation because the Zibibbo kitchen is small and six students, working at once, will not fit. Frequently the intensive students are invited to one Saturday class resulting in a grand lunch with a wine tasting. Alumni members of past classes sometimes join this event filling half the restaurant with Benedetta's students -- essentially once you have attended one of her courses, you are always welcome back to Zibibbo whenever you are in Florence.

The cost of the intensive course is 660 euro and the cost of the course of four Saturdays is 385 euro. More information is available on the Zibibbo web site -- www.zibibbonline.com.

Tuscan cuisine is arguably the finest in all of Italy. Spend a day or a week in one of these Florentine kitchens and you will take home the finest experience that Italy can offer -- something that will last forever.

© Ann J. Reavis, 2004

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