Note: I attended this Italian cooking class in Sorrento in 2007, however the school is still running classes and there have been a few new cooking schools that have opened up in the region. I recently went back in 2018 and updated this article.
I joke around about being out of shape, however I after 8 months of travel, minimal workouts, and food from all over the world – I have still been able to fit into my same clothes. Compared to the rest of the world, I feel generally fit and athletic….until Italy. My month in Italy at cooking school has produced a whole new level of body image anxiety. I have many names for it – spare tire, pasta pooch, i rotoli, muffin top, fupa…that extra weight that I’m carrying around my middle – it should have a little tag on it that says “Made in Italy”.
When I signed up for Italian cooking class – I really had no more information about it than the fact that I would be cooking 3 nights a week. When I arrived at the language school they showed me where the cooking school was (in the next town about a mile and a half away) and they told me I would need to go out there to cook on Mon, Wed, and Fri from 4:30 to 8:00 – and then I could stay and eat the dinners that we prepared. In addition, I could go to the school and eat an additional 3 times a week as part of my package. Food that I already paid for…yippee! Considering these days I’m always excited about a good bargain, I knew that I would be spending a lot of time there; however, I still didn’t really know what to expect from the school.
More Than an Italian Cooking Class
When I arrived the first night at Mami Camilla’s – I was surprised to find out that it was more than an Italian cooking class – it was a family compound of sorts. It not only included the cooking school (which was held in their large kitchen of their house), but it was also a bed and breakfast and hostel. A big wall surrounded the whole compound and when you breached that wall – you came into this welcoming Italian home…a real home. They had big terraces, herb gardens, lemon trees, cherry trees, and two lovable dogs – Spike and Lola.
The school was run by Chef Biagio Longo and his son, Augustino. Augustino served as the translator and Sous Chef – plus – he was the funny man…always joking around and lighthearted. As soon as you walked in the kitchen it felt as if you had just entered a party with friends. The cooking classes were relaxed and fun – and they contained an extraordinary amount of eggs, cheese, butter, and fried food.
The compound also operated as a restaurant every night. They had a little sign up sheet in front of the house and if you wanted to have dinner there, you simply wrote your name down on the list and join the crowd at 8PM for a 4 course meal for 15 Euro…the best value in all of Sorrento. On average, they would have about 30 people every night to feed – so as a student of the school – we were busy making large quantities of pasta every day!
It was a family operation through and through. Biagio and Camilla had 4 grown kids and each of them helped with the business. Augustino helped with the cooking class every day, Giuseppe was the accountant and worked with all of the reservations and finances of the place, and the two daughters came every night to serve the big group of people.
Then there was also Palmyra – the lovely woman that assisted at the school and basically was your shadow. Every time you put a dirty bowl or spoon down…she would have it picked up and washed quicker than you could blink. I honestly believed that she was the real brains behind that kitchen…she would give Augustino these discerning looks like…”you are putting too much salt in”, or “the pasta is to thick” – but she never really said anything –you could simply read it in her face.
A typical class included arriving at 4:30, having an espresso, eating some gelato that they had made earlier in the day, making the dough for the homemade pasta, dusting off the pasta maker and creating every type of noodle imaginable. This was followed by a wine break, and then normally we moved on to peeling various vegetables, frying them, and preparing the pomodoro sauce. Finally we’d work on the dough for the dessert/pastry that night and make the base custard cream. In between all of this – we would taste what we prepared – as all good chefs do! We wrapped up the cooking by 8PM and then went out to join the other diners to enjoy the 4 course meal we just prepared…and more liters of wine of course!
Food and Cooking Means Socializing in Italy
Every night as I sat down at one of the long tables for dinner I would meet new travelers staying at the B&B or Hostel. Even for a social butterfly like myself…it was overwhelming. New people every day – different countries, different ages, different stories – it was fascinating…and a bit of information overload. I can’t tell you how many times I told my ‘story’ to people…and I would get the same questions:
“What did you do before you left NY?”
“Do you have a job when you get back?”
“What was your favorite place you’ve been to?”
“How big of suitcase do you have?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Do you plan all of this out in advance?”
“What do your parents think of you traveling alone in these places?”
“Do you get homesick?”
“How are you able to do this – isn’t it expensive?”
That last was always my favorite…I would go into my spiel of “Well, I have absolutely no responsibilities – no kids, no home, no college tuition to pay for – so all of my money just goes to me…it’s actually pretty simple.” Just saying that brings a smile to my face. However – even though I may have gotten tired of telling my same story for a month, I never tired of meeting new people. It was fascinating and stimulating – it was like going to a cocktail party every night…it was pure energy and variety. Over that month I became friends with a number of travelers.
Since I was spending 6 nights a week at Mami Camillas – I talked to Giuseppe and rented an old, dilapidated, purple bike from him for the month. I figured that it would cut down on the time it would take to walk the 1 ½ miles each way. The bike was literally about to fall apart, but it worked well enough to ride 3 miles a day on relatively flat roads – as long as I didn’t have to use the brakes too much! It was purple, and had a bell…I was in heaven. I called it my purple pasta eater – it seemed rather fitting.
The ride home after many glasses of wine and a heavy meal was always interesting – a little Lindsey Lohain-esq. The brakes didn’t really work too well, it was a narrow heavily traveled road, and there was no light, so I basically just imagined that I was in Vietnam where people bike confidently down the road expecting everyone to get our of their way and I rode like a bat out of hell until I got back to Sorrento. There I would have to weave my way through little, narrow streets trying not to hit tourists or crash into a motorscooter. Even though this whole process often got my heart rate up and working, it was no match for the stick of butter, and 4 eggs that I had just consumed in my 4 course meal.
Visiting the Napoli Fish Market
Chef Biagio was talking about the Napoli fish market one day in class and I expressed interest in it. He asked me if I wanted to see it and of course I told him that I would LOVE to see it! Markets are one of my favorite things to visit! The only down side was that it was open from 2AM to 6AM every night. Therefore, Biagio picked me up at 3AM and off we went to Napoli in the middle of the night. Somehow I still thought I was 21 and decided that it would just be easier if I stayed up all night long – so I went without sleep that night – with the help of a few espressos. Biagio is a big man…a real big man…there would be no other person that I would want to go to the Napoli fish market with in the middle of the night than him.
Everyone talked about Naples being a dangerous city…but the fish market in the middle of the night…well…that’s not in any guide book. We arrived at the market, downed an espresso and entered. To my surprise it was clean and well-organized…unlike the Asian markets that I had visited in the past. It was held in what looked to be an old airplane hanger with a large rounded ceiling. It had pristine white walls, orderly rows of fish, pallets of iced fish, stainless steel scales, and tons and tons of men all yelling.
I was the only woman in the whole airplane hanger. Granted – I had been in these all-men situations before – but not with straight men. I’ve never seen so many men and none of them had glow sticks dancing around shirtless. Instead – they were yelling at each other with hand gestures flying. Then in walks this young woman with a camera…needless to say – I couldn’t be very inconspicuous with my photography.
Chef Biagio did buy a pallet of sea bass for 30 Euro – fresh that day to be delivered to his home. I walked around the market looking at all of the fish, asking Biagio what some of the fish were, but mainly I enjoyed watching the various men interact. After we left the market at 5AM, Biagio drove me around Napoli as the sun was coming up. He took me by a beautiful castle that was lit up by spot lights with a yellow glow.
I got out of the car to take a picture and the polizia pulled up and started questioning us. Great – I was going to end up in a Napoli prison. Biagio exchanged words with them and they asked for my documents. I gave them my NY drivers license and soon they moved on. Biagio later told me that he told them I was a reporter from America…they seemed satisfied with that and left us alone.
The Perfect Month Learning How to Cook and Be a Local
Most of all – I loved the whole concept of Mami Camillas. I loved riding my Purple Pasta Eater to the house every day and greeting everyone as if I had known them for years. I loved that fact that during our cooking classes various friends of the family would come waltzing through the kitchen to deliver some produce, to make an espresso or to simply hang out and talk. I loved it when Spike and Lola would smell the meat cooking and would attempt to come into the kitchen just to be banished to fuori (outside). I loved the fact that I had a place to call home…a place where everyone did know my name..a place to laugh at…a place to make new friends at, a place to learn how to make homemade ravioli, and a place to make new friendships.
I hated the fact that I had a place that put about 5 additional pounds on my body…but then again – all good things come with a price…mine was 5 lbs of rotoli. My new rotoli is made solely of homemade pasta, breadcrumbs, cheese, butter, cream, and pitchers of house wine all from Mami Camillas every single night. I must admit – sometimes I exaggerate…but this time I’m not…I thoroughly enjoyed every 4 course meal there, 6 nights a week, for 4 weeks…add that up and you will want to hold an intervention and check me into Jenny Craig.
My time at Mami Camilla’s was priceless. I made so many new friends – it really was overwhelming. I wish I could bottle the energy and hospitality that they produce there and sell it. It’s hard to find authentic experiences in Italy these days – but I felt that Mami Camilla’s delivered. The only thing it’s missing is a gym membership with the cooking class!
Italian Cooking Classes on the Amalfi Coast
If you are planning a trip to the Amalfi Coast and want to learn how to cook that delicious food – here are my favorite places to check out. If you want a complete cultural experience, learn about the food culture and local vendor as well as take a local cooking class then contact my friend Tina (and past Mami Camilla graduate!) at Our Edible Italy to arrange a custom tour.
Mami Camilla’s has changed it’s offering a bit since I went there 12 years, ago – but check out their latest classes here.
Check out this complete week long Campania Culinary food tour of the region