On Sunday, my family, which included my husband and me, along with his brother and his wife, arrived at the Casa Gregorio in Castro dei Volsci, Italy, along with ten other Americans, to learn to become Italian cooks in five days. Casa Gregorio is a restored villa in a beautiful walled town on top of a hill midway between Rome and Naples; the house has been made into a comfortable and cozy hotel that was perfect for our four husband and wife combinations, one mother-daughter set, one pair of women traveling together, and two women traveling solo. We ranged in age from mid-twenties to seventies, united in the desire to cook like native Italians.
Day 1: Arrival
That first day, we spent our time getting acquainted with the hotel, the town, and our new friends. We had a luscious “light lunch” of bruschetta, olives, buffalo mozzarella, bread sticks with ham and cheese, wine, and tiramisu, and after a busy afternoon, we went out for pizza in the next town, where Gregorio ordered us about twelve different kinds of pizza to try.
Day 2: Olive oil tour, gelato, baking class
Monday was the day we began to learn about Italian cookery. That morning we visited an olive oil cooperative to see how olive oil was made and a farm to see how olives were harvested. We then went for lunch cooked by the mother of the olive farmer we’d visited. After a stop on the way back to the hotel for gelato, we met at the kitchen in the hotel to begin our first class with Giustino, our chef/teacher. We made shortbread (pasta frolla) and wine cookies (ciambelle al vino) and put together and decorated a large tart and individual tarts with fruit filling and pastry decorations on top.
Adding fruit filling in our baking class
Day 3: Market visit, cheese factory, cooking class
We began Tuesday with a trip to the local farmers’ market, where we bought vegetables for the appetizers we were going to make later in the day. Then we climbed into the vans and headed to a cheese factory where they made buffalo mozzarella, which we sampled. After that, we traveled to Terracina on the Tyrrhenian Sea, where we had lunch at a seafood cooperative.
Back at Casa Gregorio, Giustino put us to work making appetizers. One of the most popular was bruschetta pomodoro e basilico, made with Italian bread, yummy tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and basil leaves. We also roasted peppers, made eggplant parmesan, and prepared frittata di spaghetti to use up leftover spaghetti.
Roasting the eggplant
Day 4: Farm visit, cured meats tour, picnic, cooking class
We began our Wednesday tour at a farm where they milked both cows and water buffalo. Then we traveled to a sausage shop called “La Pastorella,” where one of the daughter-in-laws of the owner demonstrated how a sausage was put into the casings. We ended our tour in Guarcino, where we toured a “proscuittoficio,” where prosciutto was cured. We had a picnic there, with sandwiches of prosciutto or porchetta, with other goodies from the small grocery story on the premises.
Our cooking lesson back in Castro dei Volsci that day was on pasta, and may have been the most fun of all our lessons. Guistino was assisted by Pasqualina, who spoke no English, but who could speak volumes with her eyes and gestures. She showed us how to make fettucini and roll it out by hand, and then we also tried using the pasta machine–much easier than all that rolling!
We also made pasta con fagioli and gnocchi al sugo (with sauce), which we had for dinner with a salad, lots of wine, and cream puffs, along with asti, to celebrate Teri’s 40th birthday.
Nice picnic in Guarcino tasting prosciutto
Making pasta with the rolling pin
Also using the pasta machine, the easy way
Day 5: Excursion, wine tour, cooking class
Thursday we started late and traveled past the Abbey of Montecassino, which was bombed by the Americans during World War II because they believed it to be occupied by Germans; luckily, Stanley knew the whole story and filled us all in. We soon arrived at the lovely Cantina Tullio at a vineyard in Val Comino. The last of the red grapes had just been picked, so we went through the bottling plant, and backtracked to Antina, where we had lunch in a restaurant that had been a winery. That restaurant, Le Cannardzie, was full of things that had been used in the winery.
In cooking class, we began with salsicce con peperoni, browning sausage, potatoes, onions, and red peppers, mixing them with rosemary, salt, pepper, garlic powder and olive oil, and putting in the oven to bake for an hour. We also made a scallopine of pork and apples (di maiale alle mele) and turkey involtine, breaded, pounded turkey breast rolled around proscuitto and provolone and parmesan cheeses and baked–yum! Those main dishes made a delicious dinner with salad and fruit for dessert.
Making a wonderful dinner
Day 6: Cooking class, free time, wine tasting
Friday we had our cooking lesson in the morning, and our teacher was Stefanina, who showed us how to make garnishes and decorations with fruits and vegetables. This turned out to be another hugely fun class, with everyone getting to use their hidden artistry.
After a light lunch at the Casa, some of us went to Frosinone shopping, and others went to a Cistercian Abbey. On our return from those trips, we dressed up and went out to dinner at the local Agriturismo, where we had many, many courses and many bottles of wine. The food was just wonderful, and virtually everything was locally grown or produced. We also had some local musicians come by and play for us.
Italian musicians playing some folk tunes for us
Day 7: Departure
Saturday was our last day at Casa Gregorio, and after a big breakfast, we all said our sad good-byes to Gregorio and got into the vans. We drove off to the airport, some of us to head for home and some of us to go on to other parts of Italy, but all of us with increased confidence in our ability to make some authentic Italian meals.
Having a wonderful time with my family in a restaurant in Cinque Terre
BookCulinaryVacatios.com’s Q&A with Gena
- Q: What is your favorite Italian food there?
- A: The yummy bruschetta!
- Q: What is your favorite cooking lesson?
- A: The pasta, since we were able to get our hands into the pasta and really work it.
- Q: Your favorite excursion?
- A: My favorite excursion was the one on the first day, to the olive grove and the olive oil factory, because I had always wondered how olives were grown, harvested and processed. I love olives and olive oil, so learning about them was a treat.
- Q: The best thing of the whole experience?
- A: The best thing about the whole experience was the aura of Casa Gregorio itself. It was a very old house in a very old town, and it had a wonderful feeling about it. The experience wouldn't have been the same in a modern house.
Yummy bruschetta, my favorite Italian food
In October 2012, Gena Awerkamp went to Italy and enjoyed a week of Italian cooking vacation at Casa Gregorio with her husband and in-laws. She wrote this culinary travel article and shared pictures personally for BookCulinaryVacations.com.
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