International Cooking School

Mary Beth instructs Cathy on creating the perfect delicious chocolate biscotti.
Chicago Tribune - Travel
August 2003

Cathy and Ken preparing a variety of antipasti for our multi-course food-and-wine pairing meal.
Cathy, Mary and Ken learning some tricks-of-the-trade from the Michelin-star chef.
Cooking Italy

Chicago Tribune - Travel Section featured Alan Solomon's "Cooking Italy". An award-winning travel journalist, Alan attended our hands-on cooking course, took photos amid chopping, slicing, dicing, sautéing Italian-style, ate and drank like an Italian, and still managed to write several pages describing his week with us. Following is an excerpt from his article:

Bologna, Italy — Today was Pasta Day at the International Cooking School Of Italian Food And Wine. Mary Beth was here. She's our teacher. It's her school. Andrea, the executive chef was here...Franca, the pasta chef was here...My fellow students were here. Earlier in the day, as we were warming up by creating (trust me on this) the world's best-ever chocolate biscotti, it had been a day of triumph. "See the way Alan is making an arc so it automatically feeds the hazelnuts into the knife? That's perfect," Mary Beth had said. I blushed with pride. And then...

Folks, tortellini are tiny hand-formed rings of filled pasta. You start with a square of dough, put a little bit of filling in the middle, fold the square up to cover the filling and, using a thumb as a "form," sort of mold it into a, um, tortellini. Millions of Italians, and billions of those who would be Italians, can do this in the dark. I couldn't get it. Whatever emerged from my thumb and fingers, while not entirely a disaster, nevertheless was certainly not a tortellini. Andrea saw a man in need of help. I've just created a tortellini that looks like a deformed navel, and...Andrea created a perfect tortellini...At other times during the morning, Cathy would produce state-of-the-art gnocchi. Ken, working off a flat sheet of pasta he'd just rolled under the watchful eyes of Franca, would win praise for cutting it into flawless pappardelle, tagliatelle and tagliolini. Marie and Mary would take turns converting spinach-laced flour and eggs into acres of thin green pasta for lasagna. I flunked tortellini. This was Day 3 of my first attempt at combining travel with cooking school.

It had been my idea. As a kid, I'd been hooked on a TV show called "Creative Cookery." One day, pretending to be the chef, I had prepared, all by myself, a cake that was absolutely inedible. Years later, I created a dish that a then-room-mate dubbed "goop." Made it maybe once a week. I still make it today. Buoyed by all this, I decided it was time to go to the next level...

Mary Beth Clark opened her first cooking school 26 years ago in New York. Her first Italian cooking school opened here, in Bologna, in 1987. It has been at its present location, in a 16th Century palazzo with a restaurant-quality kitchen, since 1998. "I'm a teacher," she said. "I"m proud to be a teacher. My goal as a teacher is to get people to open up, to open up their creativity, to get them to expand." Speaking of expanding — here was lunch on Pasta Day: Antipasti...gnocchi with Parmigiano-Reggiano; fresh porcini mushrooms braised with garlic and white wine with tagliolini; feather-light Bolognese lasagna; plus dessert — fresh fruit with balsamic, topped with grated chocolate accompanied by those biscotti. With wines — a still white, a sparkling white, a lovely red and,of course, a sparkling Brachetto to enhance the fruit and biscotti. The wines were bottled by other people earlier. The rest, we had sliced, chopped, kneaded, rolled, cut, cooked or, at the very least, helped assemble that morning and afternoon. And the next day, somehow, after all that food, we were ready for more.

Bologna Moment I

We're all in the Basilica di Santo Stefano, parts of which date to the 8th Century, a complex built atop an even older Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. We're headed for the door when there is a beautiful sound: chants, sung in Latin by monks barely visible, the music echoing softly in a cloister. We stop, and watch, and listen. "Every group," she says, "has something happen that's never happened before." She pauses, savoring the sound, her eyes sparkling. "That's never happened." We don't leave quite yet...

Today, we would meet each other for the first time in the lobby of the hotel, get a cook's tour of the city's historic essentials, and later walk a few blocks to dinner. There, we would get acquainted, and get fed, and get briefed on what to expect. "We're all hands-on," said our teacher. "Almost everything is provided for you. The only thing you're really going to need is an appetite."

Bologna Moment II

The Teatro Comunale di Bologna was built in 1763. It was already a century old when Wagner premiered "Lohengrin" there. On this night, waves of applause and shouts of "Brava!" thundered from the ancient tiers of seats toward the Chinese soprano in the Japanese kimono who had just sung in Italian of the American naval officer who, one fine day, would return to love this woman and the child he had never seen. In the 17th row of the main floor sat two Americans, Mary and Alan, with dampened eyes, reddened hands and awareness that they had just witnessed something marvelous in a marvelous place.

We gathered in the morning at the city's main square, Piazza Maggiore. Then we were off to market. Cheese and produce and prosciutto di Parma and fresh pasta and $150 vials of balsamic vinegar are for sale in shops and stalls just off the piazza. The narrow streets, streets with names like Via Pescherie Vecchie, are among the city's most charming. With Mary Beth leading the way, we sniffed and we tasted and we admired and we gained an appreciation for raw materials we would see again. We passed a stall with, among the bright green things and bright red things, bright yellow-gold blossoms. "Here," she said, "are the zucchini flowers." And inevitably, inspired by what we saw through the windows and in the showcases, the talk turned to pasta. "If you noticed the pasta last night — you had pasta with a little bit of sauce. The star is always the paste, the pasta."

On the edge of this market was the school. The kitchen was our classroom. We gathered around the teacher. School, truly, was in. "It started last night, with the meal (at the restaurant)," she said. "We'll be doing a lot of techniques today. Some of the things we'll be seeing in the first few recipes are what were used last night to make those roasts taste so good. Your first recipe is the brodo..."

Before the week was over, this broth would surround our tortellini, flavor our sauces, infuse our risotto. Before this day was over we would — hands-on — prepare whole roasted cauliflower, a farro (like a wheat berry) and bean salad, shrimp and monkfish soup, two frittatas, a Bolognese ragu (a red meat sauce) for later, and a honey and rosemary cake for now.

Bologna Moment III

The Asinelli Tower is one of the two leaning towers of Bologna. You can't climb the shorter one, the neighboring Garisenda, but the 500 steps of the 300-foot-high Asinelli are fair game. The steps are wooden, and sometimes narrow. If the mere mention of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" gives you hives, it is not a climb for you. I was in full sweat when I met a couple coming down. "Not much farther," said the female half. "Is it worth it?" "Oh, yes," she said. The view is 360 degrees, of orange rooftops and towers and church spires and green hills beyond. And there is a breeze. I stayed for 20 minutes, then headed down. After a few hundred steps, there was a couple coming up. They were gasping and in full sweat. "It's worth it," I said.

The true parmesan...It is made only here, in Emilia-Romagna, the region surrounding Bologna. Anything else, from anywhere else, is something else. The way you're going to see it made today is exactly the same way it's been made for over 700 years, except they changed the wood fire to electricity. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime." This was our Day in the Country.

The milk would be heated in open vats, rennet added, curd developed and cooked. In 20 minutes, the cooked curd would sink to the bottom of the cauldron, be retrieved as a mass of white in cheesecloth and be sliced in half. We tasted this Mass That Would Be Cheese while it was still warm. It was spongy, and not quite — but almost — tasteless. "You're seeing parmigiano being born." In a scene out of the "Citizen Kane" finale, the cheesemaster walked us into a room where wheels — 24,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano — were on a seemingly endless succession of shelves, aging, gaining that unique flavor and character. He took one of those wheels, which two years earlier had been white and spongy and without much flavor, and cut it open. It was splendid...

(And later) In an dozens of dark wood barrels — juniper, chestnut, mulberry, oak — some of those barrels older than that Bologna opera house. Each contains what began life as must (unfermented juice from trebbiano and lambrusco grapes) and was cooked down outside in a stainless steel cauldron over a wood fire, the most recent batches stirred, with a large wooden paddle...This liquid cools and ages and over years is blended as it ages, and blended again in a continuous process. In this attic, any barrel of balsamic will contain traces of balsamic that are decades old. "It's always blending, from barrel to barrel to barrel. It continues to live."...the flavor was pure, concentrated and unmistakable. "If it is not made in this slow, time-honored way," she said, "it is not traditional."

Lunch, too, would be in the country...There would be Parmigiano-Reggiano. There would be prosciutto di Parma. There would be things in balsamic. There would be local wines of trebbiano and lambrusco grapes. There would be Americans who were slowly picking up on what Mary Beth Clark's classes were all about.

Bologna Moment IV

I follow the sound to Piazza XX Settembre, where a small crowd on folding chairs is enjoying this free evening performance by a full orchestra playing in front of the Porta Galliera, a monumental gate dating back to 1661. The music is now from Verdi's "La Traviata." I know that because I peek at a violinist's sheet music. The audience, from the looks in their eyes and the silent smiles, knows without peeking
at all...

For five days, we had chopped, diced, julienned, sauteed, whipped and stirred...we had created sauces and roasts and pasta dishes and desserts we never could have imagined, much less prepared alone. "We have some exquisite scallops in the shell," Mary Beth told us one morning. "I'll show you how to clean them, and then we are going to slice them in half, almost, and we're going to put fresh black truffle inside..." Black truffle. Each of us had taken a turn.

"We'll show you three different types of rice used for making risotto..." We had made risotto, with prosciutto and truffles. Heavenly risotto. We had done pasta and done sauces. We. Mary and Cathy and Maria and the guy taking notes between choppings — and Ken, who had done a thing he thought he could not do.

And for a final course, we were brought to (the Michelin-star restaurant for the only demonstration in the course). We were invited into the kitchen. From the chef: "This shrimp is from the east Adriatic..." And he was off. Slowly. Trimming, cooking, assembling, explaining every move like a genius-surgeon surrounded by med students. He would use ingredients we used, like those scallops in the shell. He would use things we'd seen in the market back when we began, like those brilliant yellow-gold zucchini flowers. This was our week flashing before our eyes, a culmination of the art we had only teased, certainly, but that we now understood better than we could have imagined on that (first) evening...Now, yes, we understood.

Bologna Moment V

It was over. As our minibus headed back...into this historic city of basilicas and porticos and towers
and Puccini, Mary, who had worked in restaurants and knew her stuff...talked about it all. "I didn't
have a lot of expectations," she said. "Having taken some cooking classes in New York, they're
usually demonstrations — not very hands-on, the big-mirror-over-the-table-thing. "This," she said,
"was tremendous."

Grazie, grazie mille, Alan.

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