Italian cooking isn’t just about making food: it’s the practice of enjoying life’s simple pleasures. That’s what students learned in the first “Art of the Italian Kitchen” cooking class offered by the Stuttgart branch of the United Service Organizations, which ended April 6.
Instructor Vito Mannara, along with his wife, Luisa, transformed the USO kitchen into an Italian “cucina” on Wednesday nights, where students spent as much time talking about Italian culture and eating as they did cooking.
“Sharing our cultural backgrounds is good,” said Mannara, who hails from Taranto, Italy. “We can become richer. I want to give my contribution to that, even if it’s just a kitchen class.”
Mannara is accustomed to cultural exchange: during duty hours he serves as the Italian Liaison Officer for U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.
After duty hours, however, he taught 12 students how to create close to 30 authentic Italian dishes, ranging from pasta with tomato sauce to veal saltimbocca and even octopus.
Most importantly, he explained how to eat like Italians do: course by course.
“We eat [in] layers, not all together,” Mannara said. “Between, we drink water or wine. We talk.”
At the start of each class, Mannara outlined the recipes and where to find the required ingredients, from the commissary to local Italian grocery stores.
Then, students learned to make a three- to four-course meal, sampling each recipe with Italian wines between courses.
“The tasting part is my favorite part,” said Stella Post, an Army spouse.
Post has already started implementing some of the cooking techniques she learned in the classes.
“One thing it really taught me was that the American version overdramatizes the simplicity of the Italian flavors. You really don’t need to overdo it,” she said. “I’m taking some of that into my cooking. I make my lasagna differently now.”
The first four classes were devoted to basic meals from specific areas in Italy, and the last four sessions concentrated on well-known, regional specialties like spaghetti carbonara and pizza margherita.
Some students were surprised to learn that the Italian dishes they were used to eating in the States or in Germany were very different from those made in Italy.
Mannara recalled asking students during the first class: “What do you think is the secret of the Italian kitchen?”
Most answered “garlic,” he said, but “the real secret of the Italian kitchen is extra virgin olive oil.”
His ease in the kitchen and with the students is one of the reasons USO Stuttgart tours manager Elizabeth Plotner agreed to commit to an eight-week class with Mannara — and hopes to schedule another in the fall.
“He’s very engaging, from the initial ‘hello,’” Plotner said. “He has a nice sense of humor. He integrates anecdotes, and they love him.
“Then, I come and taste the food and that really cinches it.”
The USO offers other culinary classes, including a German cooking class and even a raw food course, but this is the first time it has offered an Italian cooking class, Plotner said. She hopes it is the first of many courses offering international cuisine and culture.
“He has kind of set the bar,” she said.
Grilled polenta & shrimp sauce
Ingredients (serves 4-6):
• Prepared polenta, sliced 1.5 cm thick
• 300 g medium uncooked shrimp (0.7 lbs)
• Half a medium shallot
• 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
• 1/3 cup white wine
• 10 medium cherry tomatoes (“pachino”)
• Red hot pepper, chopped
• Thaw the shrimp, if frozen, clean them and remove the tails. Wash and chop the tomatoes and shallot. Brown the shallot in a pan with oil (medium heat). Add the shrimp and let them become just white (high heat). Add the wine and let it evaporate for one minute (“sfumare”). Add the tomatoes, salt and hot pepper and cook for 10-15 minutes on low heat, allowing some liquid to remain.
• Meanwhile grill slices of polenta: corn-flour cakes commonly eaten in northern Italy. You can find already-prepared polenta in some Italian shops in Stuttgart or prepare it yourself: Buy a box of polenta flour and follow the directions. Let it cool in a 10-by-25 centimeter pan and cut into slices.
• Place 2-3 slices of grilled polenta on a plate and pour the shrimp sauce on top. Enjoy.
• This sauce can also be used with spaghetti. Add some fresh chopped parsley before serving.