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From the terrace at the Villa Campestri, high on a Tuscan hillside, the view is of sweeping grounds filled with fig and cypress trees, grape arbors and olive groves. Beyond an ancient Etruscan wall is the Mugello Valley, filled with as much history as beauty. From this valley the Medici family headed to nearby Florence to make their banking fortune; yet many of the Medicis,like the illustrious Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent, returned often to their retreats in the Mugello.

It’s not hard to fathom why, even these hundreds of years later. The 12th century Villa Campestri, above the cities, below the clouds, is permeated with a sense of timelessness, grace and serenity. Sipping a cup of the excellent cappuccino prepared by the gracious Daniella — who doesn’t mind if a visitor needs three to start each morning — one could as easily expect to see a cavalcade of Renaissance horsemen as a group of American visitors.

But we were the latter, and we weren’t there to spend the entire time in this idyllic spot ruminating on the past. We were there to learn to cook — Italian style.

Let’s Go Cook Italian

Ever since I’d learned that a Napa Valley woman, Diane de Filipi, took small groups to Italy to cook with an Italian chef, my sister Laura and I had agreed that one year we’d do it. This was the year. A friend and colleague of hers, Pat Uhrinak from Livermore decided to join our culinary excursion.

The story of De Filipi’s “Let’s Go Cook Italian” adventures, is a story in itself, beginning with a pound of bacon.

Years back, she was manager of the valley’s Wine Country Inn when a traveling Frenchman, Richard Cabouret, arrived. To her he expressed his frustration. He wished to eat a dish of American bacon and eggs. Everywhere he was being served quiche, brioche and other delicacies — but no one would cook bacon and eggs for him. De Filipi went to the market, bought bacon and cooked him breakfast.

It turned out Cabouret, longtime a hotelier, was compiling a group of hotels that met a Frenchman’s exacting standards for both food and hospitality. He was not considering chains or mega-hotels, but small, family-owned properties that would offer exceptional service — and memorable experiences — to guests.

In De Filipi, he said, he knew he’d met someone who “got it.” When she went on to purchase St. Helena’s Ink House inn, it became the first American entry in his group,  International Lodging Association, ILA-Chateaux and Hotels du Charme.

In 2001, De Filipi sold the Ink House, but with hospitality in her blood, she had another project in mind. She wanted to take groups to cook in Italy, homeland of her ancestors. By then she was the West Coast representative for Cabouret, and when he learned about her idea, he had the hotel for her: The Villa Campestri in Tuscan countryside north of Florence.

The villa had belonged to one family for 700 years and fallen into disrepair until a Florentine businessman, Paolo Pasquale, discovered, it, bought it and painstakingly restored it as a luxurious retreat.

“I had never been there,” she said, “but if Richard recommended it, that was all I needed know.”

She corresponded by e-mail with Roberto Zanieri, chef of the Villa Campestri restaurant, to devise the program, and recruited a group to try it out.

“It turned out better than I had ever imagined,” De Filipi said. “When it was over and we had to leave, we were all crying, and the staff was crying ” — and Let’s Go Cook Italian was off and running.

De Filipi describes her role as “a traveling concierge.”  While her program includes accommodations and cooking school at the villa (along with the sumptuous lunch you cook each day), beyond it, you are free to fill your time. But if you have an idea, an impulse or wish, De Filipi and the superb Campestri staff make it happen. Do you want to taste local cheese, ride a horse, buy pottery? They can set it up. Need a hotel in Florence? They can find you one. (In my case, it was a charming one I’d never have found on my own, called Rosa 23, looking out over the plaza of Santa Maria Novella; highly recommended.) Don’t really know what you want to do? They have ideas. It was a little like having extremely good-humored fairy godmothers on call.

Cooking enthusiasts

De Filipi said when she launched Let’s Go Cook Italian, her goal was to keep it as affordable as possible, so that people for whom it could be a once-in-a-lifetime grand adventure could try it. That perhaps explains why the rest of the group of eight proved to be such enjoyable companions for the next week. They were Bill and Betsy Fisher, a professor of math at Chico State and an elementary school teacher, and their longtime friends and fellow food enthusiasts, Linda Moore, from Nevada City, and Ron Rice from Lewiston in Northern California, both retired math teachers. A New Yorker, Lynda Lindner, joined the group after earning her fare by baby-sitting a toddler.

From our first dinner together at the villa, when Bill had the group in hysterics as he described his  misadventure getting locked in a lightless bathroom in an Italian grocery store to Betsy’s later tale about washing laundry by stomping it in her elegant villa bathtub and subsequently climbing onto the villa roof to chase her windborn, drying undies, I cannot remember ever laughing so much in one week, and certainly not while working on a food story.

And still the chef let us into his kitchen.

Meet Jerry

Villa Campestri’s Chef Roberto Zanieri acquired his nickname, “Jerry,” owing to a youthful admiration for the American comedian Jerry Lewis, and, in addition to being a superb chef and enthusiastic teacher, he proved to be a bit of a showman himself — a genial, humorous, engaging host in his kitchen, imparting recipes and cooking tips along with entertaining tales — such as the experience of being invited to cook for the pope ( a great honor but a challenge, he explained sorrowfully. “The Vatican has an electric stove.”) 

The first lesson we learned, however, on entering his kitchen was this: The French didn’t know how to cook anything until Catherine de’Medici married Henri of France, and took her Italian chefs to the French court. “The French never had an original idea,” he pointed out, as we set out on our first lesson, making crispeli, renamed, by the recipe-usurping French, as crepes.

The theme of the first day’s cooking was the basics: pasta and sauces. “With fresh pasta,” Jerry observed, “you have a thousand options.”

In addition to the crispeli — filled with a spinach-ricotta mix and topped with Béchamel sauce, that first morning we also made the lightest gnocchi I’ve ever tasted , ravioli, and two tomato sauces, which contained one of Jerry’s invaluable lessons.

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To make a sauce, he said, most people throw everything in a pot and let it simmer. Rather he said, let the ingredients reduce, get “stickly” on the bottom of the pan; then add water, reduce it again. Add water, reduce. The intensity of the resulting flavors is delectable.

If this was the only thing we’d learned, Ron Rice observed, it would have been worth it. But, of course, it wasn’t. 

Day Two was Renaissance cooking, a menu hailing from a time before the new world had provided potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate.

We cooked bianco mangiare, a thick white sauce made of chicken breast, almonds and Tuscan bread (great with fresh vegetables); a Tuscan chicken curry with almonds and fennel, a “cooked” salad of lettuce flavored with fennel; ricotta and spinach tarts; and tredura, a pork and onion lasagne, in which leek leaves are used, rather than pasta, to layer the dish.

Day Three was appetizers: the ever-popular bruschetta, topped with a fresh tomato mix, with mushrooms and with Toscani pate, chicken liver paté; and spinach and garlic quiche. Also on this day’s menu was La Torta di Carciofi, a baked artichoke dish in three versions; and a superb panzanella, bread and tomato salad.

The final lesson centered around the product produced at Villa Campestri — and a passion of its owner, Paolo Pasquale: olive oil. The menu included a a dish from potato lovers’ heaven — Jerry’s “Potato Symphony” — a carpet of potatoes topped by four potato dishes: mashed with a pesto sauce; a potato boat filled with taleggio cheese; polenta topped with a potato and fish mousse and a tower of chips, layered with anchovies and mozzarella cheese.

We also made a simple and completely delicious Spaghetti with Bread Sauce, and dessert, a Villa Campestri olive oil cake.

On this final day of cooking, the Frenchman himself, Richard Cabouret arrived at the villa — just  in time for lunch. Although he’d been instrumental in launching Let’s Go Cook Italian, he admitted he had never yet sampled the results of the cooking lessons. This day he would. Would he be poisoned?, he asked. He sampled course after course. He pronounced himself astonished — and sated.

That day Jerry gave us our diplomas, kissed the women, but not the men, and autographed our aprons. We had mastered the art of stirring polenta while holding a glass of wine. We had cooked food that pleased a Frenchman. We’d had our individual adventures, some getting locked in bathrooms; some finding the oldest tree in the Mugello valley; and others buying bread in an ancient, hidden village. Most of all we had had so much fun, it was clear it was going to be hard to get anyone to leave without promising we could all come back, sit again on the terrace of the Villa Campestri, look out at the Mugello valley and be glad that long ago the Medicis had emerged from this valley.

Otherwise the French would never have learned anything about food.

For more information about Let’s Go Cook Italian, visit the Web site, www.letsgocookitalian.com

For more about Cabouret’s hotels, visit www.ila-chateau.com.

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