An authentic home cooking lesson in Modena, Italy + pizza recipe

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Final installment of my long weekend in Bologna, Italy a couple weeks ago. See part I and part II.

As Bologna is often hailed as one of the food capitals of Italy (Naples being another), I wanted to take an authentic Italian cooking class while I was there. I found a website called Cesarine that offers a large variety of home-based cooking classes — pizza, pasta, lasagna, etc.

What I like about Cesarine is that it appears to be unique to Italy — founded in Italy, only available in Italian cities. I’m always happy to support more local businesses, rather than the generic Airbnb corporations of the world.

One thing to note is that the instructors on Cesarine (they’re called “cesarinas”) are home cooks, not professional chefs or instructors. They’re literally just people who like to cook and want to share their family recipes with you. By this same token, I could also be teaching out of my own kitchen in Geneva, but I won’t unleash that mediocrity onto the world.

I ended up choosing a pizza and tiramisu class, and sent a request to take this class in Bologna. But that was only the first step. Next, I had to complete a detailed survey that asked a lot of thoughtful questions (e.g., how far are you willing to travel to the class, any food allergies or aversions, comfort level with Italian, etc). I responded that I did not speak any Italian, but was happy to do the class in Italian if the cesarina did not speak English. I figured that with my existing knowledge of Spanish and French, I could scrape together at least a rudimentary understanding of Italian.

A few days later, a representative from Cesarine contacted me to let me know that the cesarina in Bologna was not available on my requested date. She proposed an alternative — I could instead take the class with another cesarina in Modena, just 30 minutes away by train. As a bonus, the cesarina was even willing to pick me up from the train station and drive me to her house.

Modena

When I arrived in Modena (pronounced MO-de-na, not Moderna), there was a strong sense of déjà vu. The town reminded me strongly of Parma, which I had visited around this time last year. The streets were green, leafy and quiet on a Sunday, with the occasional tables of old men smoking over coffees.

I was a little early, so I decided to first walk to the centre of the town and look around before proceeding to the cesarina’s house.

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Modena is small but known for a few things: it makes really good balsamic vinegar. After I came back, I saw bottles of Modena vinegar at my local supermarket. And it’s the home of several luxury Italian car brands, like Ferrari and Maserati. Later, when the cesarina drove me back to the train station, she proudly pointed out their headquarters along the way.

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There was an impressively opulent palace in the town square. I believe it is now used as a museum.

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Just a few steps away was Modena Cathedral, tall, white and imposing.

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I had a quick look inside but couldn’t stay long, as I was running out of time to get to class. It was a sunny, lazy afternoon, with a smattering of tourists and some locals enjoying coffee under large umbrellas.

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The cooking lesson

The cesarina, ML, welcomed me into her home — a clean and spacious one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building. Prior to the lesson, we had corresponded briefly on WhatsApp, her writing in Italian and me responding in English. When I stepped into the apartment, there was another woman, P, whom ML introduced as a friend of hers who could help with interpretation. “So you don’t speak any Italian at all?” They asked me.

“No,” I said apologetically. I offered some languages I did speak: “Español? Français?”

“Français!” P exclaimed with enthusiasm. That was a language we had in common.

Even better, a grey, chubby cat emerged from the bedroom and waltzed up to me, sniffing suspiciously. “You’re not allergic, are you?” P asked me.

Pas du tout,” I said, letting the cat sniff my hand. “Moi, j’adore les chats.” (Not at all; I love cats.)

ML and P welcomed me with the utmost Italian hospitality. Though the ingredients were already prepped and ready to go in the kitchen, ML led me first to her living room table, where she had prepped a variety of cheeses, snacks and drinks. She invited me to sample balsamic vinegar from Moderna by dipping chunks of cheese in it. I feel bad that I couldn’t eat much, as it was only 4pm and I had just eaten a late lunch at 2pm. I lightly sampled the snacks, and then we proceeded to the kitchen to get started.

We started with the pizza. ML gave me two laminated sheets of paper with the recipes on them; at first I thought they were standard handouts from Cesarine, but later I realized it was her personal recipe. As ML taught me how to make the pizza dough, P translated the instructions into French for my benefit. She also assumed the important responsibility of keeping the cat at bay, as he kept attempting to jump onto the table and sniff the flour.

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Working the dough.

I never imagined that I would one day be taking a cooking class, in Italy, in French, but then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised: this was the third time I had encountered someone in an Italian-speaking region who was much more comfortable in French than English. I’m beginning to realize that French is a more useful language than I had given it credit for, especially in Europe. (And also that I should try to learn Italian. At least the basics.)

Making the pizza was surprisingly easy. I should note, though, that this is not the same type of pizza that is served in NYC, for instance. The pizza that we made at ML’s house was more like focaccia, or Italian flatbread. After I got home, I adapted the recipe slightly to suit my personal preference, which is for a softer, thinner, and cheesier pizza. I’ve made it several times now with incredible success; knowing how easy it is to make, I could never go back to storebought frozen pizza again!

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Italian Pizza Recipe (adapted version)

Ingredients:

Flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, other toppings as desired

Steps:

  1. Mix a small packet of yeast with warm water in a small bowl, and let sit for 5-10 minutes to activate.
  2. In a large bowl, mix flour, warm water, a sprinkle of salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and yeast (when ready) with a spoon, gradually adding more flour when the mixture is too wet and more water when it’s too dry.
  3. Once the ball of dough has begun to form, put aside the spoon and use your hands to mix. Vigorously crush, flatten, and fold the dough repeatedly to get the air out. Massage in more flour whenever the dough becomes too sticky.
  4. When the stickiness is mostly gone and the dough has settled into a small ball, cover the bowl and put it somewhere dark and cool for 45 minutes.
  5. When the dough is almost ready, prep the sauce. Mix tomato sauce, a teaspoon of olive oil, and a teaspoon of salt in a small bowl.
  6. Take the dough out and preheat the oven. ML’s recipe calls for 250 degrees Celsius, but my toaster oven only goes up to 230 degrees, and that has worked just fine.
  7. The risen dough will have become sticky again. Scrape it from the bowl into a ball and massage in more flour, using the same crushing/folding technique from earlier to reduce stickiness and eliminate air.
  8. Lightly coat a baking pan in olive oil.
  9. Spread the dough on the baking sheet, patting it down evenly. It should be thin but not so thin that any parts become see-through.
  10. Spread spoonfuls of tomato sauce evenly across the dough, leaving room for the crust along the edges.
  11. Put in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.
  12. While baking, cut mozzarella cheese into small slices of about 1-2 inches long. Prepare other toppings as desired.
  13. Remove the pizza from the oven and layer on mozzarella cheese. I also like to add arugula and basil leaves. I also drizzle some olive oil on top.
  14. Bake for another 10 minutes. All done!
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Two of the pizzas we made. The one on the right (with a prosciutto topping) is a favorite of Modena locals.

We also made four pots of tiramisu. This one I won’t be making at home, since I don’t have a mixer and also am not a huge fan of dessert, but it was really light and not too sweet — and especially delicious knowing that everything was made with our own hands.

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After dinner, ML and P showed me the rooftop of the building. It seems that ML might live in the tallest building of all of Modena! We had a panoramic view of the entire city, plus Bologna in the distance.

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There was still a lot of pizza left, so ML packed it all into aluminum foil containers and bound them neatly so that I could take it all home on the train. (I ended up eating the leftover pizza for both lunch and dinner the next day, after I had arrived back in Geneva.) I also asked to take ML’s cat home with me, but the request was denied.

ML and P gave me a ride back to the train station and warmly bid me goodbye. I so appreciated their patience and hospitality; if only we had been able to exchange hugs! An employee at the station scanned my temperature with a gun, and I left Modena with a full belly and full heart.

Back to Geneva

Since there was only one direct train between Milan and Geneva each day, I had to leave Bologna at 5:30am the next morning to catch the train to Milan. When I walked into the dim lobby at 4:40am to check out, the night manager was stretched out asleep on a sofa, hands folded across his chest in an elegant, vampiric pose. It felt like an asshole move to wake him. I crouched in front of him and simply stared at him, manifesting his awakening.

It was a trick that had worked on my napping father when I was four. It also worked now. The guy jerked awake and groggily processed my checkout, then called a car for me. This seemed to be a fancier, concierge-type service than the regular taxi I had taken from the train station a few days prior; the price was slightly higher at 14 euros, as opposed to eight.

The train station was already bursting with activity at 5am. I bought a croissant from the cafe and watched other passengers consume shots of espresso at the counter.

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For the four-hour journey between Milan and Geneva, I splurged and bought a first class ticket so that I could rest and catch up on sleep along the way. Usually there’s not much difference between first and second class, but on heavy travel days and during peak times, the calm and quiet of first class can make a huge difference.

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And that’s a wrap on the Bologna trip. I’ll be back, Italy, and I promise to learn some Italian the next time we meet. Arrivederci for now!

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