Hands-on Sicilian cooking classes are an international escape

LaTavolo owner Mary Joe Gagliano taste tests risotto in her hands-on Sicilian cooking classes held in her Chelsea home. Photo by Madoline Markham.

By MADOLINE MARKHAM

La Tavolo is a hidden gateway from to Europe. The new cooking school advertises teaching authentic Sicilian recipes from owner Mary Jo Gagliano’s family, but what they really offer is a trip to Italy without getting on a plane.
You know you are in the right place for the class when you pull up to what appears to be an Italian villa just a few minutes off Highway 280 in Chelsea.

Gagliano invites you through stone archways into her home kitchen. The space beckons groups to cook with its commercial gas range and refrigerator, three sinks and Italian décor and dishware. Background music helps foster an atmosphere that inspires the risottos, pastas and other authentic Sicilian dishes, as much if not more than the instruction and ingredients.

Most of LaTavolo’s dishes aren’t complicated; you just need to know how to do them right. Gagliano provides her favorite ingredients, recipes and kitchen equipment and lets you learn the cooking yourself with her to guide you along in the two-hour class. We did all the chopping and stirring ourselves but relied on her to make sure we were doing it right and help us taste test to see when our risotto was the perfect texture.

The classes are small and intimate. Four to six people for each class is ideal, but Gagliano will take up to eight.

“It’s always exciting to see excitement on someone’s face when they don’t cook much,” the former realtor said. “They are like a first time home buyer.”

Gagliano throws out cooking tips while the class prepares the recipe. Don’t cut off the root of the onion. Prep everything for the risotto in advance. Use unsalted butter, always. Finish the dish with freshly grated Parmesan at the table. Remove seeds from tomatoes for a prettier presentation. Use a paper towel to wipe the dirt off of mushrooms.

Classes vary by season. Past classes have included a dessert class complete with how to make your own limoncello as well as learning to make a cauliflower frittata, a quick and easy one-dish meal. This month there will be a class on Sicilian-style stuffing/dressing with chestnuts and Italian sausage and a Sicilian-style stuffed turkey breast.

Perhaps the best part of the cooking classes is the hands-on dining to complete the Italian experience. After our risotto had cooked, we moved to the dining table of the home’s piazza, a back deck overlooking her garden and a private lake. There we relished the flavors we had prepared while sipping red wine and talking about visiting Italy and the art of entertaining.

Over the years Gagliano travelled to Sicily to visit her husband’s relatives. In Sicily, you don’t go into the kitchen; you are a guest. Family members there would give Gagliano their recipes, and she would return home to try them and exchange cooking ideas with a Sicilian cousin who lives on Staten Island.

Sicilian recipes evolved from years of poverty. The dishes were created from readily available ingredients and incorporated flavors from all nine countries that had invaded their country over the years.

For 47 years, Gagliano cooked these flavors for her family and entertained friends in Birmingham.

Twenty-five of those she was a realtor by profession. Then, when her four children were over at the house for a Sunday meal earlier this year, they had an idea.

“Mom, you should do this,” they suggested. “You should teach people how to make fantastic meals.” Gagliano thought about it. Cooking, entertaining and meeting people were her passion, and her father had always told her to make her work something she was passionate about.

“Why not share my culture with other people?” she thought. “You don’t get meals like this in Birmingham restaurants.” And so she began hosting La Tovolo cooking classes and creating a website to sell Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar and other items handmade in Italy and Sicily.

Gagliano wants to show the younger generation how to entertain. The hostess sets an example with grace and arms her classes with recipe cards, aprons and many tips. “The table should always be beautiful,” she said. “That tells guests that they are special to me.”

As for me, I left the Italian haven La Tavolo completely relaxed, refreshed and full of inspiration to host my own risotto dinner party. The classes make an ideal date night or girls’ night. I certainly plan to return with some friends.

Classes are $50 for one or $40 for groups of four to six. For more information on La Tovolo classes and products, visit www.latavolo.com.

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