Learning is the same as getting better; learning never ends.
Sitting in a class sucks. Being talked at is far from the best way to learn. Going wrist-deep in flour and having caked-on semolina cling to your arm fur, now that is living. And learning. Tasting really stinky cheese is a much better way to learn about milk’s circle of life than, say, watching Andrew Zimmern glorify the virtues of the dairy cycle. To learn about cooking, one must immerse, one must taste, one must travel. Pick a destination that isn’t Disney World’s EPCOT center with its plastic stucco model countries. Do the real thing.
Fly out of Newark, New Jersey for a cheap flight to Rome. Identify the ten largest cities in Italy. Avoid them. Find a town that has a baker, a pizza shop or two, a piazza where roaming merchants showcase their goods, and stay at a comfortable place to sleep. Nothing else matters. A view or two doesn’t hurt, though. On my recent return to Italy, I wanted to learn more about the food, clear my head, and possibly not return to the US. Two out of three is pretty good.
Alessandro Capecci owns a shop in the center of Ripatransone. It’s hard not to be in the center of the town, given it is on top of a mountain surrounded by a wall and only has a few hundred residents.Three hours from Rome and a time warp away, in his shop, the 55-year old chef has the energy of a kid, the wisdom of a scholar, but not nearly the patience of a saint. Which makes for plenty of hand gestures and yelling, especially when explaining in Italian the proper technique for rolling paper-thin pasta to somebody that only speaks English and Spanish. I have known Sandro for nearly ten years, from when he visited Delaware and did a demo on taking apart a pig for real porketta. In that time, I have traveled to the Marche region in central Italy, this being the third time. This town, its people, the landscapes, the remarkable food, all feel like home. I have seen Maurizio’s kids grow, watched Silvia go from a bambina to a high schooler, and seen the town’s potter leave his legacy in the little whistles he used to craft.
Sandro and I are like old college dorm buddies. Time and distance is always our intermission with our last cooking shenanigans. He expects me to remember, and I expect him to teach me. What happens is I get to make food from this guy’s past, from his grandmother’s lessons, from his shop. These aren’t the recipes of Food Network nor are they in American restaurants. Olive Ascolani are green olives stuffed with sausage, breaded, and fried. The ribbons of pasta ortica are narrow wrinkles of verdant, green noodles made with nettles. This is a polenta made with the flour of ground chickpeas. We slice swordfish impossibly thin, top it with a muddling of tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic.
“Dinner on Friday night, here,” commands Sandro. “My shopppahh! Your family, they will be here.” People that I have known through only visits and years of Facebooking, they are familia. And we would be eating together in the front of Sandro’s little shop, in the shadow of the bell tower of the church outside in the piazza. And my eyes grew glassy. Learning about food starts with knowing about for whom you are cooking. These aren’t people that insist on laserbeam-hot dishes, hurried service, sports on TV. Being present is what matters. If the food is crafted honestly, everything else is gift wrapping and glitter.
Preparing for dinner is a lot less stressful in Pasta all’uovo Mozzoni than in every other kitchen I have ever worked. While not wanting to embarrass myself, the calm of Sandro moving around his Dominioni pasta machine is relaxing. He is relaxed and I am a typical American, asking questions of Why aren’t you letting the pasta rest? What about the scraps and trim of the ravioli? How do you make the ricotta look like pillows stuffed with angel feathers? Sandro’s lessons are many, but the hushed pace at which he moves is both excitable and gentle and the most relevant of all the wisdom he is sharing with me. If we maintain our calm, the dishes will work, I learn. He plows energy into working the ravioli filling but allows plenty of time to make sure the pockets of pasta are filled just right. Busted seal? No problem. Calm. Adjust. Try again.
There is nothing more rewarding than learning from somebody that really knows their shit; like, knows their specialty so well that they move around a kitchen with a caffeinated energy and seizes attention through confidence. When somebody has mastered, really mastered, their craft, and is willing to share what they know, that is an opportunity to catch on fire. Learning is the same as getting better; learning never ends. Closing that door is much akin to working in the dark. Getting better is footed in taking chances, looking beyond the page you are on, and getting your ass up off the couch to move towards less familiar spaces. Why? You don’t read one book and quit.