Lake Como: Il Caminetto Cooking Class

This might win the medal for my favorite day in Italy.  Ever.

It was the first week of April and there were very, very few people in Varenna (of course, there were very, very few things open in Varenna, too).  I walked out of my hotel into Piazza San Giorgio just before 9:30am and, other than one lone man standing on the edge of the square, no one was in sight.  Moreno, the chef at Il Caminetto, had emailed me instructions to wait in the main square and he would come pick up all of the students for his cooking class.  I wasn’t sure if this other guy was waiting for the same reason, though, and feeling a bit awkward I stood on the other side of the piazza.

Right at 9:30am a grey SUV drove into the square and a man whom I vaguely recognized from traveler photos on TripAdvisor stepped out and shook hands with the guy on the other side of the square.  I walked over and sure enough, it was Moreno from Il Caminetto.

I got in the backseat and Paul (the-other-man-in-the-square) climbed in front.  Turns out his wife and son were supposed to have joined us as well, but unfortunately his son had gotten sick the day before.  :(  We went over to the port where a New York couple, Pam and Eric, were just getting off the ferry from Bellagio.  They piled in back with me and Mareno began navigating the narrow, windy roads up the hill and over to Perledo, the small – and when I say small I mean “tiny” – village where his restaurant is located.

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We pulled up to a collection of stone buildings, one with a weather-worn wooden sign proclaiming “Ristorante al Caminetto” (Restaurant at the Fireplace).  There wasn’t another sole to be seen.  The village felt deserted, almost like a ghost town, and I have to admit it was a little creepy.

The energy changed, though, as soon as we stepped over the threshold into Moreno’s restaurant.  Warm blond wooden beams traversed the ceiling and smaller, curved planks of the same wood separated sections of tables with red plaid tablecloths and slat-backed dark wooden chairs.  Copper plates and knick knacks dotted the white plaster walls.  It felt like a home kitchen.  The brick fireplace was cold but warmth emanated from every inch of this place.

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And then I saw it, the painting that made me want to adopt Moreno as my eccentric uncle:

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A large, full color canvas of Pope John Paul II.

Time to get down to business.  Though I had seen pictures online of Moreno conducting class down in the main section of the restaurant with 10 or so people, it was the first week of April (pre-high-season for tourists) and there were only four the of us, so he had set us up in a small raised area toward the back of the room (and right under the painting of JPII).

We were going to prepare tagliatelle with a tomato, zucchini and leak “sauce” (though it was more of a toss) and potato gnocchi with a gorgonzola cream sauce.  We sat down and enjoyed a mid-morning snack while Moreno cut the vegetables and explained everything about what he was doing.

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Which would’ve been a lovely class, in and of itself.  The food was absolutely amazing and Moreno is a wonderful teacher who speaks excellant English (he was a chef in Milan for seven years).  But its Moreno himself who made the day the most memorable. You see, Moreno should’ve been an entertainer.  I suppose he kind of is.  Everything he does during the class is either to instruct or amuse.  For example, he can’t just cut the skin off a tomato, he had to give the two men in the group an extra tip for when they *really* screwed up with their wives to the point where cooking dinner wasn’t enough to make it up to them: how to make a tomato peel rose.

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Moreno cut the vegetables up into tiny pieces and tossed them together, telling us about Perledo, his village, while he did, answering any and all questions we had about cooking, Italy, Lake Como, his family – you name it!

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I won’t give away his recipes, because that’s something you get as a bonus in the class.  The bigger bonus, though, was listening to him talk.

On April 4, 2012, there were 82 residents of Perledo.  Eight-two.  More than 82 people live on my floor in my apartment building.

Moreno’s family had operated a bar or restaurant from this space – where Al Caminetto currently is – AND lived above it – for over 500 years.

I’m still speechless.

500 years?! My mind can’t even conceive of a private building that’s 500 years old, much less that a family had stayed in one place for so long.  It makes me realize again and again, every time I think about it, how young the US is.  Over the centuries, Moreno told us, they’d had to update the building with electricity, plumbing and other modern conveniences, but that always led to its own set of problems as the structures obviously weren’t built with these things in mind.

Then Moreno asked us where else we had been in Italy and where we were going and I mentioned that I was headed to Verona in a few days.  ”Don’t they eat horse in Verona?”, Pam asked me.

“Yep,” I replied. “And donkey”

At which point Moreno shuddered.  ”I could never eat donkey.  It’s like eating dog to me. My brother has one, you see.”

“A dog?”

“No, a donkey”.  Yes, that’s right: his brother, who also lives in Perledo, has a donkey. “They’re such sweet creatures,” he continued. “I could never”.

I kinda want to live in a place where people have donkeys as pets.  All I know about donkeys is that I used to get really upset when they’d have them at birthday parties pretending they were “ponies” for pony-rides.  Please! My generation grew up watching My Little Pony; you can’t fool us that easily.

But back to the cooking:

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It was time to make the tagliatelle.  As I looked around for the mixing bowl Moreno poured the flour right onto the table in front of him.  He then made a “well” in the middle and began cracking eggs into it!

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This didn’t seem very hygienic and I admit my salmonella-paranoid tendencies (thanks, mom) were rearing their ugly heads, particularly when Moreno then stuck his hand right in the middle of the mess and started “stirring”.

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Well, I got over my shock and have wound up trying this at home (several times).  It’s not as easy as Moreno made it look.  You gently incorporate the eggs into the flour (He’s using De Cecco Semola di grano duro rimacinata, but unfortunately this isn’t sold in the US.  I’ve tried a bunch of different things at at this point would recommend a 70/30 mix of 00 and semolina), careful to keep an edge on your “bowl” of flour till the eggs are incorporated enough not to leak through the sides.

Once mixed, pack in airtight plastic and set aside for at least 20 minutes.  Then its time to roll!

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I now have a pasta machine to help with this at home.  Getting it thin enough by hand is NOT easy, though Moreno recommended putting your thumbs on top of the rolling pin to better control the pressure on each side, otherwise you’ll wind up with one side thicker than the other.

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After a lot of layers of flour and folding and cutting, you toss some more flour on top (dont’ worry – semolina comes off the surface of the pasta in the water; it won’t change the consistency) and then toss it, like so:

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Moreno insisted on posing when he saw I was taking a picture so it wouldn’t be blurry :)

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Next, onto the potato gnocchi.  While he was pressing the boiled potatoes through the ricer, a call came in in English so Moreno’s wife (who doesn’t speak much English) brought the phone in for him to talk while he pressed.  Moreno’s daughter also came by during the class – it was such a welcoming, family atmosphere!

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Moreno and his family own a small B&B across the road that had a plumbing issue they were trying to deal with quickly, as they had someone coming to stay that day (the girl who I wound up hiking to the cemetery with, actually).  The buildings in Perledo weren’t built for modern conveniences so plumbing and electricity take a bit more care than they might otherwise.

But back to the gnocchi…

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We all rolled some off a fork and then Moreno started the Gorgonzola sauce.

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It was absolutely as rich as it looked. :)

All of the food we made and tried that day – from the pastas to the meats and breads that made up our “snack” – were really, really wonderful.  Perledo can be a bit difficult to get to, considering you can just walk out of your hotel in Varenna to a restaurant a few feet away, but it’s definitely worth finding your way to Il Caminetto.  Moreno’s restaurant – even in the cooking class! – provided the best meal I had during my stay on Lake Como and possibly during my entire two-week trip.

Moreno dropped us back in Varenna around 4:15pm and I doubt any of us ate dinner that night.  There had been so much food, so much laughter and such a wonderful insight into family life on Lake Como, and all for a fraction of what I had seen cooking days cost in other cities! I wish I could’ve gone back every day.  I will *definitely* be going back the next time I’m in the Lake Como area, whether its for another cooking class (hopefully) or just a wonderful meal at Moreno’s restaurant.

Thank you, Moreno, for a wonderfully memorable day!

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