Toscana Saporita Cooking School
A few months ago I made the agonizing decision to quit my job. I loved my job, but I was hitting a moment of serious burnout, and I was also craving an opportunity to travel on my own without the backdrop of stress, pressure, and responsibility. I spent some time thinking about how I could do this, and I ultimately decided that as a single woman in my early 30's with no husband or children, that this might be my only opportunity to take a break and go for it. So, I did it. And one of the first decisions I made was to attend the weeklong Toscana Saporita Cooking School in Tuscany. I had done a lot of research, and all of the reviews pointed to this being an incredible, authentic, and memorable experience. After just finishing up at the school this past week, I can very clearly state that this was one of the most special experiences I have ever participated in, and I know I will remember it forever. I can't wait to get home and put my new learnings to good use by hosting a dinner party with friends and toasting to all things Italy.
The school is run by the one and only Sandra Rosy Lotti who is a world renowned Chef, cookbook author, and frequent teacher at the James Beard House and Eataly in New York City. Sandra is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to everything there is to know about Tuscan cooking. In addition, she is welcoming, spirited, and makes you feel at home from the moment you arrive. Sandra is proud of her Italian roots, and she focuses on cooking with natural and fresh ingredients. Below are the details on the cooking classes, the accommodations, the afternoon excursions, and the meals you will enjoy while studying at the school. Whatever you do, go ahead and look at your calendar and book the school. You will not regret it for a second.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The school is located within the province of Pisa, and is about 25 minutes outside of the city center. It is in a very remote location without a lot of activity or things to see beyond La Casa Rossa, which is where you stay. You will not have transportation or ways to go out in the evening, so just settle into a relaxing and quiet few days. I really liked this setup as you do get tired after cooking and exploring all day long, and I think it keeps the experience more personal and focused.
- Every morning starts with a bountiful breakfast cooked by Sandra's son and Co-Owner Alessio, as well as the Pastry Chef Ottavia. Around 10 a.m. the classes begin and they last around 3 hours.
- Each afternoon there is a break for a few hours after lunch for you to take a walk, take a nap, or just relax. Casa Rossa also has a pool for you to enjoy if you will be visiting in the summer months. After the break you are picked up by the tour guide Tony who is an expert and brings you to a lot of lovely places such as Pisa, Pietrasanta, Torre del Lago, and Viareggio.
- You do not need to bring anything with you at all. The kitchen is fully stocked with every gadget and tool you could ever want. In addition, Sandra provides aprons on the first day so you really can wear whatever is comfortable for you. I do recommend sneakers since you will be on your feet for a few hours at a time.
- Each week the number of students varies. There are weeks where there are 12 attendees, and there are weeks like mine where there are only 3 people. No matter what happens, the school goes on! Even if only one person can attend for the week, Sandra and her team will still provide the most special experience for that one person. I loved having the smaller crew because it allowed for very personalized lessons and learning, however I have no doubt it would have been great no matter how many people were attending.
- The rooms at Casa Rossa are very comfortable. They are situated in an old farmhouse and have a lot of authentic and rustic charm. My room had beautiful wood beams on the ceilings and a fresco painted on the wall. Each room has its own bathroom and the house includes wi-fi and all of the necessary amenities. However, this is not a 5 star hotel, so you should have proper expectations.
Where to even begin? The classes are nothing short of phenomenal. Every day we were taught by Chef and Owner Sandra Rosy Lotti, her son and Chef Alessio John Matteo Da Prato, Pastry Chef Ottavia Novelli, and Sandra's intern Isaiah who was visiting from Michigan. Due to Sandra's 24 years of experience of running the school, the experience is flawless. Everything is well thought out, perfectly prepped and prepared, and you are never going to find yourself waiting around or twiddling your thumbs. They also do a great job of jumping around from lesson to lesson as things become ready, and take advantage of all of the time that is available. Most importantly, the team at Toscana Saporita are some of the most generous and lovely people I have met. They were simply a joy to be around all week. In addition, never once did I feel worried about asking a question, and never did they make you feel silly or bad for not knowing something. They really mean it when they say this class is for all levels, and they catered to our every need. During the week I attended, below are the classes we completed:
- Knife skills
- Handmade tagliatelle and croxetti pasta
- Pasta frolla pastry
- Gnocchi two ways: semolina and potato
- Homemade tomato sauce
- Homemade bechamel sauce
- Pizza dough
- Multi-colored ravioli
- Sourdough bread
- Olive oil tasting
Needless to say, we learned a lot. I know Sandra and the team do change up the lessons from week to week, but you can expect some of the classes above to be part of your experience.
While every lesson was excellent, my favorite was learning to make the multi-colored ravioli. The most important thing to learn here is that nothing is made with dyes or coloring. Instead, Sandra taught us to make all of the colored pasta with real ingredients. In this case, we made the brown pasta from cocoa powder, the green pasta from arugula, the yellow pasta from egg, and the orange pasta from sundried tomatoes. You then create the pasta as you normally would, feed it through the pasta maker, and then it's time for the art class. You pick one sheet as your base color, and then use the pastry cutter to cut strips from the other colors and affix them in any pattern of your choice onto your base. Once things are as you like them, you feed the sheet through the pasta maker one more time to combine the colors and create the beautiful dough. What fun it was!
You must know that the team at Toscana Saporita does not mess around when it comes to meals. Every morning's breakfast is feast-- we had everything from pancakes to banana bread to crepes to peach and custard pastries. In addition, they always have fresh fruit, yogurt and cereals. They also will make you coffee, tea, or a cappuccino if you'd like. Just ask!
Lunch is typically a 3 course meal which includes a starter of some sort, a pasta, and a dessert. Often times your lunch will be something you just made in the lesson that morning. We enjoyed burrata, a panzanella salad, gnocchi with Gorgonzola, gnocchi with tomato sauce, tagliatelle and risotto with porcini mushrooms, croxetti pasta with pesto, chocolate gelato, farro salad, pasta frolla pastry, spinach and cheese multi-colored ravioli with butter and sage sauce, frittata with potato and onion, and many more amazing bites.
For dinner we feasted on chicken cacciatore, rigatoni amatriciana, veal with carrots and potatoes, crepes with shrimp and zucchini, cheese cannelloni, cod with potatoes and onions, and we also had a pizza party one night with tons of different toppings and we enjoyed it with beer. During all of the meals the wine was always flowing, the service was always perfect, and the conversation was never dull. No matter what, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of food, but at the same time, eat up and enjoy because you will rarely get food as comforting as this. My favorite bite of the week was the croxetti pasta with the basil pesto, but it's honestly hard to pick given how phenomenal every dish was. You and your stomach will be treated like royalty.
Around 3 p.m. every afternoon you get picked up by Tony who is the official tour guide for the Toscana Saporita school. He is kind and knowledgeable, and is the perfect group companion for visiting many of the small towns in Tuscany. We had the chance to visit Pietrasanta which is the home of marble. In Italian this translates to "holy marble". As Sandra told us, the Italians are very direct with their language! On that afternoon we saw artists carving scultpures out of stone, and creating mosaics by hand. We also visited the town of Lucca which is a wonderful place to stroll around and visit beautiful old churches such as San Michele in Foro. We took a trip to Pisa and got tickets to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. While it's a strange experience as you feel lopsided while you are climbing, the view is worth it! Tony also took us to a very upscale town called Forte dei Marmi which is known for its fancy shops, restaurants, and hotels. It was beautiful to see the streets all made of marble. On our final day we visited the beach town of Viareggio and also the tiny village of Torre del Lago which is where Puccini lived and worked. There is an open-air amphitheater that seats 40,000 people and they have an opera festival every summer.
However, the best excursion we had the chance to enjoy was the truffle hunting with Savini Tartufi. The Savini family has been in the business since the 1920's and we started the day by heading out to their factory. From there we met one of their truffle hunters Luca and his truffle hunting dog Giotto. We went out into the forest together and watched as Giotto worked with Luca to smell the truffles, alert his master, and then dig them out of the ground. It was fun to watch, and it is impressive to see how smart the dogs are. During our time hunting Giotto found three black truffles and one white truffle. Once the hunt was over, we went back to Savini Tartufi and feasted on a lunch filled with dishes that had truffles as the centerpiece. The star of the show was the tagliolini with truffle butter and shaved black truffles. It was so good it was sinful.
During the week at Toscana Saporita I made new friends who I have no doubt I will stay in touch with, and I felt lucky to learn about the Tuscan culture, and to experience it firsthand. I will always look back on this experience as very special, and I am thankful to Sandra and her team for making it such a memorable journey. If you even have the slightest interest in attending Toscana Saporita, I would tell you not to hesitate and to make it happen. I promise you will have a wonderful time.