Food and family are the focus of a cooking class

Angela in the kitchen at Villa Ida in Sorrento

We arrive for our cooking class in Sorrento, Italy, on Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter — a national holiday celebrated by families throughout Italy. It seems appropriate that today everyone is focused on food and camaraderie.

When we reach the driveway of Villa Ida, we are greeted by Roberta Cuomo, the first member of the Cuomo clan we meet. We follow her along a short path lined with grape vines and fragrant oranges and lemons. She invites us to drink Neapolitan coffee and plum cake around one of the large, round, painted ceramic tables in a manicured backyard that feels like a family room.

My husband, Jerry, lived and worked in Italy for a year before we met, and now, many years later, we are here to feed my interest in Italian cookery and expand his role in the kitchen beyond frothy cappuccino and carciofi alla giudia (Roman-style fried artichokes).

The Cuomos, once a family of nobles, live in a private villa that houses 20 family members in an ocher-colored stucco enclave subdivided into eight apartments. Angela (Roberta’s aunt), the capocuoco (executive chef) of the operation, soon joins us. In her late 50s, she speaks only limited English (Roberta is a proficient speaker), but Angela is adept at communicating with a warm smile and seems to understand every comment we make or question we ask. We roll up our sleeves and take our places at individual cooking stations set up on both sides of a long table next to the outdoor kitchen.

The menu includes a traditional four-course Neapolitan-style lunch using recipes that Angela and her mother, Ida, inherited. First, we make tomato sauce for a pasta dish that layers ziti from nearby Gragnano with baby eggplants and mozzarella cheese. The approach is hands-on, watching and doing.

Following Angela’s lead, we marinate capretto (goat) in garlic, oil, vinegar, rosemary, sage, salt and pepper in preparation for roasting. Next she shows us how to flour and fry veal scaloppine. With our appetites growing, we assemble tiramisu for the dessert. Sophisticated looking but surprisingly simple to make, the desserts are placed in the fridge.

After we’ve finished preparations, Angela’s brother-in-law “Charlie” invites us to his man cave, a cantina where he stores the wines he makes from seven grapes, including the distinctively sweet strawberry grapes of the area.

“I come here with my problems to solve them,” he says philosophically. “But when I enter the cantina, I forget them.” It’s easy to see why. We taste his white wine, red wine, merlot and a combination of red wine and gassosa soda that Charlie calls “babooza.”

Charlie soon coaxes us out of our cushioned seats in the cave to get back to cooking. Two men in our group help him carry jugs of wine to another long dinner table, which is set under a pergolato (pergola). A cantankerous rooster next door is the only distraction, momentarily interrupting the crooning of Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra over outdoor speakers.

We finally sit down to lunch surrounded by our cooking school adoptive family. The menu, the flavors, the setting and the warmth of our instructors combine for an unforgettable Easter Monday. Angela brings out two additional holiday desserts: a Colomba di Pasqua (a Panetonne-like bread shaped like a dove) and a sweeter cake called pastira.

I’m not sure my husband will expand his menu at home, but I know that, like me, he has learned two of the most important cooking lessons: Stick to simple recipes with fresh, high-quality, local ingredients, and share meals with friends and family.


  • Cooking classes at Villa Ida in Sorrento, Italy, are generally held between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. or between 4 and 8 p.m.
  • There is a minimum of two people and maximum of 20. The price of $185 per person includes the course and the meal.
  • For booking and additional information, see

[Previously published in the Chicago Tribune – September 6, 2011]


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