“La cucina povera.” Often translated as “the food of the poor,” the Italian term seems unlikely to make mouths water or inspire serious foodies to blow their vacation budget on a cooking course.
But in and around the city of Lecce, deep in Italy’s heel, a crop of culinary schools and cooking teachers is encouraging travelers to embrace this traditionally marginalized food and to master the recipes of the extremely humble (and remarkably resourceful) local fare, which lies far at the other end of the culinary spectrum from haute cuisine.
Prepared with local produce, sundry leftovers and pastas, these unembellished peasant and working-class dishes are taking center stage. As a result, Lecce, long cherished for its beautifully chiseled Baroque and Renaissance churches, is now drawing food-obsessed travelers, including some noted chefs and restaurateurs, eager to transform fava beans, turnip greens, broccoli raab, chickpeas and breadcrumbs into unexpectedly flavorful dishes.
“The former aristocracy demanded that the poor workers hand over the lion’s share of their toil,” said Silvestro Silvestori, who in 2003 founded the Awaiting Table Cookery School in Lecce, a pioneering program that has imparted the secrets of boiled chicory, pickled hyacinth bulbs and other local bounty to more than 2,000 guests who have attended its weeklong cooking courses. “What the wealthy didn’t care about were the legumes and weeds, and that’s where our kitchen begins.”
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“Over generations this human ingenuity began to take shape, so that really good things could be made from the humblest ingredients,” said Silvestori, an Italian American from Michigan whose grandmother hailed from Lecce. “I’d liken ‘la cucina povera’ to ‘soul food,’ as the genesis for both was the profound necessity of the neglected and subjugated.”
Though the cooking schools and classes vary in duration from a few hours to several days and occupy structures ranging from simple apartment kitchens to extravagant palazzos, many programs blend similar ingredients: an easygoing familylike atmosphere; visits to local markets; convivial group meals; wine and olive-oil tastings; and instruction in English.
“Thanks to women going to the market, cultivating the products and cooking the food in a certain way, they have transmitted the culture,” said Cinzia Rascazzo, founder of a Lecce cooking and food-tour outfit called Stile Mediterraneo.
If you book classes at Alle Due Corti restaurant, you’ll spend three days led by the head chef Rosalba Da Carlo. Squeeze into the apartment kitchen of Il Gusto del Tacco (The Taste of the Heel) and you’ll be working alongside the cookbook author Anna Maria Chirone Arnò as you whip up dishes like puréed broad beans with fried bread and green peppers.
Even Silvestori points out his debt to the opposite sex. “I picked up the habit of cooking with older women here in the Salento,” he said, referring to the region of Puglia that contains Lecce. The area, he added, “is where I developed my personal style as a cook. I’m a 43-year-old heterosexual college-educated male, but I cook like an older provincial woman.”
Cook in Puglia is one cooking school which exclusively employs women around the region to lead its classes and demonstrations in local styles.
“We are doing something that our grandmothers taught us — making great recipes and inventing recipes with a few healthy ingredients,” said Ylenia Sambati, who in 2010 created Cook in Puglia and began recruiting its network of teachers — including her own mom. “Our cooking classes have an ancestral meaning. The hearth. The olive grove. For these sacred acts we need old ladies.”
Gianna Greco, co-founder of Cooking Experience, also parlays the tutelage of her grandmother into dynamic cooking classes, which unfold in a former 17th-century monastery tucked in Lecce’s historical core.
Stile Mediterraneo was founded when Cinzia Rascazzo, a Harvard MBA who worked for Goldman Sachs in New York and London, quit investment banking several years ago to “do something to help my region,” as she put it one afternoon while showing off the centuries-old palazzo that serves as headquarters.
The business is another fully familial affair. Rascazzo’s sister, Marika, a cardiologist, is her partner and sometime co-teacher. The palazzo, situated amid olive groves and vineyards just outside Lecce, belonged to their grandfather. Their grandmother taught them to cook.
“When I was living abroad I always noticed that only Tuscany and Northern Italian regions were getting all of the attention,” Rascazzo said. “Nobody knew about Puglia or our way of eating, or our wines or our producers. It was just Mafia, pizza, spaghetti — the usual things associated with the south.”