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The Gentleman of Verona

Gourmet, August, 2005

When he was five years old, Giuliano Hazan was staying with his grandmother in Cesenatico, Italy. After eating a healthy portion of her Swiss-chard tortelloni, he smiled, sighed, laid his tiny head upon the table, and lapsed into unconsciousness.

Giuliano's grandmother called the doctor, who rushed to her home. He examined Giuliano with care. "The boy is fine," the doctor finally said. "He is sleeping. He is content."

Giuliano told me this story last May while we sat on the lawn of the opulent Villa Giona, outside Verona, where, for the past five years, he has taught cooking classes every spring and fall. The 16th-century villa's resident peacock - whom Gabriella, Giuliano's six-year-old daughter, calls George - hooted lazily. The nameless bullfrog in the villa's fountain croaked like a lonely cat. In the villa's pond, carp snapped at gnats. Wind rustled poplars and oaks at the lawn's edge. Beyond the trees stretched vineyards. Lupines and red poppies bloomed beside the vines.

The grand architecture and stunning grounds are features that set the Villa Giona apart, according to former students, the veterans of other European cooking schools. Another thing, they say, is that Giuliano is with his students all the time, and that his wife and kids tag along for field trips and meals. "It's like learning to cook with an Italian family."

I went to the Villa Giona after a long indoctrination in the formality and precision of French cuisine. But Italian cuisine isn't about following a recipe as if it were a chemical formula, Giuliano told us the evening before our five-day course began. We ten students were lolling about the villa's lawn, sipping Prosecco and nibbling crisp small radishes pickled in brine. "We're not going to use any recipes," Giuliano said. "We want you to get an idea of how Italian cooking feels. We're also going to introduce you to some Italian foods that are impossible to find outside Italy."

It was on the great lawn, surrounded by vineyards and spring flowers, that Giuliano introduced us to his partner and our other instructor, Marilisa Allegrini. Glamourous Marilisa raised her glass and said, "I'm going to teach you about Italian wine in a way that you can learn what you like."

Julia, a young housewife from Moscow, eyed the chic spatulate shape of Marilisa's shoes. "I hope," she said, "you're going to teach us about Italian footwear, too."

Our days began on the villa's second-floor loggia, where a young woman in a white apron brought us cappuccino, poured fresh orange juice, and offered to make us poached or scrambled eggs. We'd then board a big bus to visit a licensed producer of Parmigiano-Reggiano or an artisanal maker of air-cured culatello who sprinkles his hams with white wine. One morning we visited an olive mill whose cold-pressed oil is so exquisite that in the nasty winter of 1944, they say Eva Braun stopped by to confiscate every last drop. After these adventures, we ate lunch.

"They should serve this at Canter's Deli," I said one afternoon, staring at the twin mounds of horse and donkey meat on my plate that were braised in Amarone.

"The Galloping Gourmet would have loved it," said the Florida attorney to my left.

We were lunching at Tre Marchetti, a trattoria near Verona's Roman arena, which hosts the famous outdoor opera festival that draws thousands of fans. On other days, we ate at small places favored by locals. One afternoon, we even had lunch not far from Maria Callas's favorite summer home, on the patio of a restaurant overlooking Lake Garda that specialized in fish and delicate freshwater shrimp, both from the lake. We would linger over these lunches and then go back to the Villa Giona to rest for a while in our rooms with their 12-foot ceilings and whirlpool tubs.

Around four or five, we'd spend an hour with Marilisa. In a patient way, she explained the history of Italian grape cultivation. (Italy grows more than 800 varieties.) She taught us about Italy's "four key winemaking regions" (Piedmont, Tuscany, southern Italy, and the Veneto), and the four official categories of Italian wine, which roughly resemble those used in France. Allegrini is considered one of the finest producers in the Veneto.

Our four- to five-hour cooking classes took place in the early evening, in the villa's large, modern kitchen, where Giuliano and his wife, Lael, stacked the ancient fireplace with baskets of artichokes, tomatoes, and leeks; basil and rosemary; and strawberries and grapes. During each recipe-free class, Giuliano taught us how to prepare a first course, and entrée, a side dish, and a dessert. Each night he concentrated on a specific technique - how to debone a chicken breast, say, or skin and fillet a monkfish tail, or quickly peel bell peppers. Once he spent an hour teaching us the amount of force and finesse required to pound veal cutlets flat.

The most difficult class involved making sheets of pasta for his Swiss-chard tortelloni. It seemed so simple. One-and-a-half cups of flour and two eggs blended with a fork on a wooden cutting board. ("Pasta," Giuliano told us, "doesn't like cold. So never make it on a marble or stainless-steel surface.") Kneading the dough was tricky. Giuliano was hard to satisfy. Our dough was either tacky or not moist enough.

"Look," he said poking his mound of perfect dough. "It's done when it's soft and smooth like a baby's bottom."

The smallness of the class, Giuliano's insistence that we all get our hands dirty - wrestle with the monkfish's slippery tail, slice the veal and pound it flat - allowed us to acquire a sense memory of how each dish should be prepared. Craning your neck over 20 other students in a look-but-don't-touch school, or reading a recipe in a cookbook, doesn't allow you to get a feel for making risotto with peppers and tomato, as we did in Giuliano's class. He told us that risottos in most American restaurants are too dense and too rich.

"They prepare them ahead of time and reheat them. But when a risotto cools, its starch congeals. American restaurants often thin it out by adding cream."

Giuliano stood at my side while I stirred the risotto until it achieved a thick-soup consistency. It was a little looser than risottos I'd made back home. "Taste the rice," he said. "The individual grains should be firm but not chalky."

While Giuliano tutored me in risotto, several students watched intently, waiting for their turn to stir. Others practiced peeling peppers with Giuliano's special back-and-forth technique. In one corner of the kitchen, Lael played with Gabriella. In another corner, two students made fragrant cups of espresso from the amazing machine Giuliano bought especially for his classes. This, I thought, is how people used to learn to cook at home.

It was, of course, Giuliano's famous mother, Marcella Hazan, who introduced America to Italian cuisine. Giuliano's childhood was divided between the Upper East Side and Italy, and, every morning when he left for classes at the Rudolf Steiner School on 79th Street, Marcella sent him off with a little blue thermos of veal stew or something equally different from what his classmates ate. "But my lunch was never complicated," he said, noting that "the most difficult thing to each Americans isn't how to make pasta. The most difficult thing to teach is simplicity. Americans are always worried they haven't worked hard enough. They always ask me, 'Shouldn't we add a sauce to that?' Home cooking has become such a special occasion that Americans can't accept that simple is enough."

By Abe Opincar. Courtesy of Gourmet, Condé Nast Publications Inc.

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Historic 16th Century Villa Giona in the gastronomic heart of northern Italy