With her mom jeans and gold Madonna on a chain swinging between her breasts, Marianna Giuditta reminds me of mothers I grew up around in my New Jersey neighborhood. It makes sense, since so many of them were descendants of folks from Calabria, this region in the toe of Italy’s boot. Marianna even moves around the kitchen like they did—a tigress going in for the kill.
“The pig is the meat of Calabria,” she tells me, hacking away at a chunk of pork and tossing big fatty pieces of it into a pot to start off her Sugo Calabrese.
Cooking by Marianna’s side is taking the straight shot into the rustic, generous spirit of the region.
Her classroom is a hilltop shack, which around here is called a casetta. It’s surrounded by lemon and fig trees, a chicken coop, and tiny gardens where Calabria’s famous red onions, herbs, chard, fava beans, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and melons grow. There’s an outdoor wood burning stove. It’s a typical Calabrese setup, where townies have a country place to grow their own food and cook great fresh meals.
Marianna’s evening class is a whirlwind of picking vegetables from the garden and then working on a huge outside table, doing everything from chopping onions to making meatballs that go into pasta al forno. Her husband Franco pours prosecco and adds fresh-picked strawberries to our glasses. We nibble on pecorino paired with the garden’s fava beans—a divine combo.
While the tomato sauce bubbles along, Marianna teaches me how to make fileja, Calabria’s signature pasta. It looks a little like what back in Jersey was called cavatelli, pronounced gava-deels by those moms.
The sunset turns the sky pink and orange. It’s dark out by the time class is finished and there are loads of stars. We dine outside by candlelight, and when Marianna breaks out the limoncello, we realize it’s two in the morning.
The Cooking in Tropea school is the creation of Tania Pascuzzi, an Australian-Italian whose parents were born in Calabria and then immigrated to Melbourne. Tania, who grew up around delicious Calabrian food, came to live in Tropea after fourteen years of high pressure work in the New York fashion industry. She’s a sophisticated, fun-loving gal who looks chic even when she’s wearing faded jeans.
Tropea is a beautiful school base. It juts out above the sea, a jumble of crumbling sandstone baroque buildings, tiny piazzas that look like opera sets. I’m staying in a 17th century renovated palazzo, right off the main square. Inside is a modern surprise: a spacious suite, sleekly designed, with filmy taupe curtains, balconies, and a laptop with Internet access.
The cooking program includes a food tour of Tropea, where with Tania by my side, everyone treats me like I’m part of la famiglia. This is hot red pepper territory. They’re dried and tied up in garlands all over the place. They’re minced up and made into n’duja, a spread that sizzles on the tongue or has me choking and gasping, depending on intensity.
During three days of classes, I explore the surroundings of Tropea and get to Capo Vaticano, a neighboring village set on cliffs with views of the Aeolian Islands.
There I meet Rosanna, a hip mother of two in her thirties, who looks like a grown up Meadow Soprano. She’s an Encyclopedia Brown of Calabria’s culinary traditions and her recipes add subtle, elegant notes to the region’s classics. There’s a heavenly dish of peppers, pecorino, and breadcrumbs. She sauces her fileja with tomato and tuna that was caught that morning, and we have fresh grilled swordfish spiced with herbs.
Rosanna’s menu is loaded with vegetables grown on a huge organic farm she runs with her husband, Roberto. We ride around it in a golf cart, past patches of flowering chamomile, stalks of wild fennel surrounding vineyards, orchards, and fields of greens. There are Arabian horses, cows, llamas, pigs, chickens, and gaggles of geese.
Most entertaining are the couple of ostriches we catch during mating season. The male squats, spreads his feathers, and sways his neck in figure eights—a move Roberto calls a “danza d’amore.” The gal ostrich pays no attention, maybe because we’re watching. It’s the only display of cool behavior I’ve seen during my time in Calabria, where hugs and kisses come at me at every turn.
We eat lunch on the terrace of Rosanna and Roberto’s Capo Vaticano resort, a sprawling modern beachside complex with guest apartments and a swimming pool. Rosanna brings out homemade ricotta covered with fresh strawberries. The sun sparkles off the sea. Like so many moments in Calabria, this is one I want to take home in a bottle.
For Information about Cooking in Tropea classes, go to In Italy Tours.