Learning to cook the Italian way

Few things in life are as comforting as a warm, fragrant and noisy Italian kitchen. They are wholesome, fulfilling places, whether tucked away in the Italian countryside, in an Old World apartment in Little Italy or off the Judiciary Square Metro stop at the Casa Italiana Cultural Center right here in D.C.
Chris Costa
Chef Melchiorre Chessa breaks out in song over a successful batch of cheese and potato ravioli.

Located at 595 1/2 3rd Street N.W., Casa Italiana is a language school — one of two in the city endorsed by the Italian Embassy — that also offers cultural and art classes (including a class on making Italian ceramics) and Italian cooking classes.

With statues of Dante, Michelangelo, Verdi and Marconi gracing the fa�ade, it’s a hard building to miss, even on an icy, dark Tuesday evening in January. And, once inside, the cheerful yellow walls, carefully set round tables and friendly “ciao!” from the school’s director, Olga Mancuso, dispels any sense of being out of place. For tonight, at least, you are going to cook, eat and drink as a true family member of la Casa Italiana.

This winter’s cooking series kicked off Jan. 25 with a “rustic Umbrian” menu, which included an antipasti dish involving asparagus and eggs, homemade ravioli and rabbit stuffed with pork. Umbrian Chef Melchiorre Chessa was overseeing the class, aided by his fianc�e and translator, Theresa Burton. Back in Umbria, the bustling, rosy-cheeked Chessa is a private chef and, having grown up as a shepherd, a cheese-maker, specializing in fresh ricotta and pecorino.

Upon having our glasses filled with pinot gris, the 24 people in the class packed into the kitchen, attracted by the already-fragrant smells and Chessa’s singsong laughter. We were immediately offered triangles of peppery pecorino fresco that had been aged for less than a week, according to Chessa. It was a tempting nibble to get people interested in next week’s class on Italian cheese.

The first real duty to “get our hands dirty” was to make little bread packages of thin strips of asparagus that had been lightly cooked and then topped with fried eggs. The bread itself had been brought from Italy and was called “Carta de Musica.” Making and munching these tidbits resolved any need for instant gratification, and attention was duly turned to stuffing the rabbit with lard and rosemary.

A trio of 20-something girlfriends — the youngest in a crowd that included mostly women in their mid-30s — wrinkled their noses as Chessa shoved lard, liver and rosemary through a meat grinder. The liver was for p�t�, the lard and rosemary for the rabbit. Oblivious to their looks, Burton spread the p�t� on slices of bread and passed the plate into the crowd. In the meantime, the rabbit went into the oven.

“It’s so simple but delicious,” said a regular cooking-class attendee, Amanda, who works at the Securities and Exchange Commission. “And the atmosphere is wonderful,” she added.

This was the third series of cooking classes she had taken at Casa Italiana — a series generally includes five classes — and she described herself as being “hooked,” though she admitted she didn’t repeat every recipe at home. She, like many of the people attending the class, had been attracted to Casa Italiana by the language classes and had stayed for the cooking classes.

Linda, who had driven in from Maryland for the class, said she had decided on cooking over language this winter: “It’s so authentic! You don’t see this in a regular kitchen.”

Chessa, in the meantime, had the pasta machine out and was walking the class through the process of making ravioli. Over my shoulder, Deborah, a lawyer from La Plata, leaned forward, clearly eager not to miss anything. “This was a disaster when I tried it at home,” she admitted. An aficionado of Bon App�tit and Cook’s Illustrated magazines, Deborah said she loved to cook and certainly planned to try what she saw at the class back in her kitchen at home.

She was clearly not the only one. When Chessa asked the class whether anyone owned pasta makers, the majority answered yes.

Having sent a single sheet of pasta through the machine, Chessa recruited a few timid volunteers to do the rest: rolling, forming and cutting the cheese and potato ravioli. Timidity soon evaporated under his guidance and jokes. “You must caress the pasta,” he wailed to his first female volunteer, who was going too quickly. “Piano! Piano!” (Translation: Slowly! Slowly!)

With three silver trays of pasta laid out ready to be cooked, Chessa stuck his head into the ovens to check on the rabbits. Apparently inspired by what he saw and the savory smells of cumin, licorice, pork and rabbit, he broke into song, belting out a rousing “La donna � mobile” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

Within 10 minutes, warm plates were being piled high with squares of ravioli, fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. Wine glasses were refilled — by now for the third or fourth time — and a pleased silence filled the room. A round of applause greeted the appearance of the chef and the rabbit, and suddenly it was 9 o’clock and the evening was over.

For $48 per class and $160 for a session, the classes are not inexpensive. On the other hand, you are getting a three-course meal, all the wine you can drink and entertainment for under $50 — not a bad deal and certainly worth trying at least once. Classes to come include rustic Ligurian and Venetian menus and instruction on the wines of Piedmont.