Mamamia! It’s food with an Italian view
THE six of us had been strangers only four hours earlier.
It's amazing what a few glasses of fine local wine on a carefree summer's day can do for international relations.
So, we two Aussies and four Americans from the one family are chatting like old friends as we sit around an outdoor table under a white market umbrella.
But under the mask of pleasantries, deep down we are all very anxious. We are all bursting with anticipation. And we are all very HUNGRY.
Our Italian host has been busily heating, deep-frying and adding the finishing touches to our meal on his state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen on the upper terrace of his penthouse apartment.
We are momentarily distracted from the breathtaking view over the historic rooftops and domes of the Eternal City as the first course arrives.
And that first bite is made even sweeter by the fact we have all had a hand in the dish's creation.
This is the beginning of the end of a highly educational but enormously fun morning spent with restaurateur and food maestro Fabio Bongianni that has allowed us to tick "making Italian food in Rome" off the bucket list.
Fabio's Fabiolous Cooking Day is so much more than about throwing an apron over the head and turning kitchenhand. And Fabio is so much more than your average chef.
As a younger man, he was set to become a lawyer but was smart enough to know that the profession wasn't for him.
So he followed his passion for cooking.
He studied at Ritz Escoffier cooking school in Paris and then returned home to Rome to begin and manage successful American steak house the T-Bone Station. His That's Amore restaurant opened in 2004 near the Trevi Fountain.
Then Fabio decided to transform his property in the countryside in the medieval town of Mazzano Romano, about 20 minutes from Rome's city centre, into a cooking school.
He found himself teaching mostly couples three or four times a month.
But in large part, due to his welcoming personality as well as his extensive experience, the popularity of the classes grew and Fabio has since added other locations and trusted chefs to his business.
Fabiolous Cooking Classes are still held in Mazzano Romano but also at his Fooxia Restaurant (in the heart of the Jewish ghetto of Rome, a few steps from Largo Argentina), at the Club House on Tiberina Island, at That's Amore (for pizza-making), and this penthouse near Piazza Farnese, which has played host to contestants in the Italian version of MasterChef.
Fabio agrees any good cooking class isn't just about a chef having great technique. The chef also needs to be a "people person" and good at people management, always maintaining a cool, calm and collected exterior.
In fact, if he wasn't such an accomplished chef, Fabio would make a great diplomat.
Those diplomatic skills come to the fore during his cooking classes where a mish-mash of amateur chefs of all ages and from all over the world - some using English only as their second language - come to learn how to cook fine Italian fare in Rome.
Fabio treads very carefully.
He knows he must allow each participant to feel they are contributing to the overall dinner or lunch, no matter the limitations of their cooking experience.
He knows he must go gently, gently - explaining the steps, being hands-on for the trickier parts, adding his encouragement but never fearing to request a thinner "this" or a thicker "that" to keep everyone on track and ensure little wastage.
As a result, he is liberal with his "perfecto" comments when his charges have done well, and steers them in the right direction when their effects are, well, "less than perfecto".
His assistant is never far away, filling in any gaps in the process to allow Fabio more time with the enthusiastic and inquisitive guests.
The master always maintains overall control over his newfound "apprentices" so that at the end of five-hour lesson, the feast is indeed fabulous in taste and presentation.
But the first step in the process is always finding the best, freshest ingredients.
So Fabio guides us through the alleyways from our meeting point in Rosso Pomodoro towards the buzz of the mercato (market) in Campo
Dei Fiori - just off Corsa Vittorio Emanuele II, and not far from our accommodation on Piazza Navona.
We don't have to venture far inside the market to be captivated by the colour, vibrancy and aromas, or to hear the producers spruiking their bargains of the day in seasonal fruit and vegies.
The lessons here are much more than being able to tell the difference between datterino (like our Roma) and casalino "pumpkin" tomatoes, and discovering that zucchini makes a good substitute for spinach when unavailable or out of season.
Fabio wants us to learn how to live well by eating well: buying fresh produce that is full of colour, texture and flavour, and then knowing how to bring out the best of that in our cooking.
He plays tour guide along the pedestrian route to his three-storey penthouse as we pass Palazzo Spada before giving us a quick twirl of the terraces and THAT 360-degree view.
Then we take up our positions around the preparation table, with bowls and utensils at the ready.
As many hands make light work, Fabio gives us a rolling roster of jobs: cutting up eggplant, strawberries, tomatoes and zucchinis (where we learn how varying the size of the slices helps create texture that is important to the overall taste); crushing garlic with our hands; taking out the insides of tiny halved grape tomatoes and putting in a small cube of buffalo mozzarella; breaking up stale bread to soak up the juices of the salad; slicing what we call red Spanish onions (and trying not to cry!); de-skinning cooked potatoes for the gnocchi before putting it through the mashing machine and really squishing it through our palms for extra-smooth results.
We pick up many little tips along the way. For example:
Putting two ice cubes with pesto ingredients in the blender keeps the colour vibrant.
Simply stirring unheated pesto through spaghetti (rather than adding it in the pan and heating) brings out the flavour.
Leftover potato, a pinch of salt and egg, rolled into a ball with two small cubes of buffalo mozzarella and then coated in a breadcrumb mix of olive oil, fresh herbs, salt and pepper makes great croquettes.
And who knew a marinade using only balsamic vinegar and brown sugar could make strawberries taste so good for dessert.
The most interesting part of the lesson, though, is the pasta-making.
Fabio gets us to make a well of flour and break the egg in the middle - just like my mother and my home economics teacher taught me.
But instead of using a cold knife to mix the flour and water, Fabiola gives us a fork and tells us to gently bring some of the edge into the middle as we go around the circle, mixing it in as we go. Once combined, we knead and flip, knead and flip until the dough is smooth on one side, then roll it into a fairly thin ribbon of pastry, ready for the pasta machine
Within minutes, he has us all helping to hold the ever-growing scarf of pasta as it comes out of the machine. It certainly takes the term "hands-on" to a whole new level and ensures our cooking day in Rome is indeed "perfecto".
FABIOLOUS COOKING CLASSES
Cooking day in Rome:
Held Monday to Saturday.
The tour and class (lunch and local wines included) will last about five hours.
Visit www.fabiolouscooking day.com for bookings and recipes.