"Is this heaven?" asks Shoeless Joe Jackson, upon setting foot on Ray Kinsella's once farm turned baseball diamond in the movie Field of Dreams. Jackson's question is coupled with childlike wonderment in light of his surroundings: a baseball field in the middle of a serene, quiet cornfield in Iowa. No press or MLB officials, just plush green grass, blue skies and the game he loves.
I found myself asking this very same question upon my visit to Mamma Agata's Cooking School, the 4th stop on Mom's tour of the Amalfi Coast and Rome. The cooking school is Mamma Agata's home: an ultra charming house built into a cliff in Ravello, which overlooks the rich blue waters of the Amalfi Coast, sending most observers - myself included - into a trance like state. The view is simply spectacular. Even these pictures, while beautiful, don't even come close to doing it justice. And while beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder, something tells me even Shoeless Joe would trade the view from the dugout for the jaw dropping view from Agata's porch.
Mamma Agata's daughter, Chiara, opens the door for us after the group finishes a twisting and mildly life threatening van ride through the coastal roads in the area. She first walks us out to the patio and treats us to some of her delicious moist lemon cake with some cappuccino. (Slight spoiler alert, I had 4 pieces of the lemon cake before I left).
Shortly after cake and coffee, homemade wine, produced by her husband, Gennaro, is being poured into a glass for us. As Chiara puts it, this is "Italian Breakfast." The cake, and the lemons, by the way, are all homemade. They are grown within their multi terraced farm along the cliff, which all are welcome to explore. Yes, even me:
She then leads us into the kitchen, where Chiara's mother, "Mamma" Agata, is already beginning to prep the day's dishes. Mamma has been cooking since she was 13 years old, and has cooked for many of famous stars who have vacationed throughout the area. Mamma and Chiara run the class, and they are quite the pair: all of Mamma's Italian mutterings are translated into English through Chiara, who is just as happy to share Mamma's precise cooking secrets as she is to relay Mamma's playful, yet lovable insults aimed at her daughter (who she claims talks too much). They have a wonderful, highly entertaining working relationship which brings the class to immediate life. It also helps that their open air kitchen is complimented by the crisp, fresh breeze flowing in from the not too distant seas.
The first main dish the group is taught to prepare is the family's eggplant parmigiana. Chiara explains her family's method for selecting certain eggplants and making sauce with, interestingly enough, unchopped garlic. A small bowl filled with sauce is passed around for all to taste. I've never quite had anything so wonderfully smooth and fresh. In a glass container, Chiara piles on the eggplant, cheese, followed by some eggplant, and cheese, and some more of both, and some basil until it is almost overflowing. Then, into the oven it goes.
Much of the cooking class is infused with wonderful snacks as well. Bread, rolled eggplant, peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini fritters... and the wine keeps flowing too. At the same time, Mamma and Chiara are giving everyone hands on instruction while regaling us all with colorful stories from the family's history with food and the town of Ravello.
Sauces are prepared for two different pastas. Mamma and Chiara also begin making chicken with lemon, garlic, rosemary and sage. And while the finishing touches are being put on each of these masterpieces, Chiara politely shoves us out of the kitchen towards that beautiful patio to enjoy a whole afternoon's worth of cooking.
First is the eggplant, which is a crusty, oozing, substantial masterpiece. Granted, my photography skills in this picture could use some work, but just take my word for it. The eggplant has been cooked all the way through despite its thickness and is perfectly layered with milky, melted cheese. With all respect to marmo, this is the best eggplant parmesian I've ever had.
The next two courses are pastas. First is what Chiara calls Spaghetti of the Farmer, with capers, olives, and cherry tomatoes. It has a tastefully strong/salty quality to it. The sauce is fresh and sticks perfectly onto the pasta. The oil levels within the sauce are just right. It is mixed with fresh, green arugula leaves. The other pasta - a parpadalle with sausage and peppers - is delightfully sweet. The juices from the peppers combine with the natural oils from the sausage and sauce to create an almost syrupy feel. It is difficult to determine a winner between these two. They are both simply outstanding.
After pasta, we are served the chicken which has a strong, flavorful lemon punch to it. The meat has both white and dark portions and the rosemary supplies a noticeable savory, pine like flavor. It is tender and juicy, with the chicken skin providing a wonderful sweet, salty, almost caramelized outside. I am loving this dish.
For dessert, more of that delicous lemon cake is served up, coupled with some of Gennaro's homemade limoncello and tangirinecello. I had been sampling limoncello all week throughout Sorrento, and this was the best yet. Smooth, strong and that delightfully ticklish burn on the way down.
Afterwards, the group digests and listens to Chiara tell stories and speak Italian to her cats, who stopped by the area looking for leftover scraps. Most of the time, she is able to get them to scram, but every once in a while, she has to break out the heavy artillery!
A super soaker! Hilarious. And on the van ride home, we all could not stop talking about the food, experience, and scenery, each of which is the finest you will find anywhere. Mama Agata's Cooking school was the highlight of the trip. Perhaps best of all, Chiara assured me that the dishes we made, with a little practice, could be easily replicated at home. Stay tuned for an update on this... As an added bonus, Mamma did not object when I squeezed her cheeks.
If you are in the Amalfi Coast, or planning a trip there, just go. It is easily the most bulletproof recommendation I could ever make. 0% chance of disappointment. For more information click here.