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Lake Garda: Gourmet Italia course teaches Americans healthful, Mediterranean-style cooking

By JOLENE CARPENTER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 14, 2010

Anyone who might follow the aroma of simmering food to a Gourmet Italia cooking course in northern Italy will encounter a group of Americans cutting and folding pasta, flipping crepes and tasting freshly made pizza, gnocchi and risotto.

What might not be so obvious is that they are also taking part in a food revolution.

That’s the hope of Larry and Carol Pisoni, owners of the company, which caters to Americans living in Europe. They want to stop Americans from committing what they call “dietary suicide.”

“We are concerned about Americans’ health,” explains Carol Pisoni, who helps teach the classes. “If you look at the newsreels at the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, you see well-dressed Americans and hardly anybody is overweight. You look at the news now and a much larger percentage of people are overweight. What’s happened to us in these last 47 years is frightening.”

It’s a serious subject, but the classes focus on food and the fun of cooking it. In April, a dozen Americans with connections to the U.S. military convened at the Hotel Piccolo Mondo on scenic Lake Garda for three days of cooking and eating. The course includes meals cooked by the hotel chefs using the recipes demonstrated in the class.

“I think making cooking classes for Americans who live in Europe caters to the people who’ve already gone off the base and are a little adventuresome,” said Leslie Mehall, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Heidelberg, Germany. “When you travel, you have to eat. Putting the cooking classes together with the love of travel and the love of food just makes for a better vacation.”

Gourmet Italia students learn the basics of the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, whose residents have only a fraction of the cardiovascular disease that plagues North Americans.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and pasta, olive oil rather than butter, garlic, sea salt and spices for flavor, and fish and poultry. Eggs, red meat and sugar are kept to a minimum; butter is discouraged.

The Mediterranean “isn’t cattle or dairy country,” says Carol Pisoni, “so meat and milk products aren’t emphasized. They use some cheese.”

The Mediterranean diet translates into many tasty and aromatic dishes served at lunch and dinner during the class, such as:

• Crunchy salads with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh vegetables.

• Creamy risotto (rice cooked with broth and flavored with cheese and other ingredients).

• Pasta cooked al dente (firm but not hard) and topped with simple sauces made with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, herbs, spices and mushrooms.

• Grilled fish and other seafood.

• Gnocchi (Italian potato dumplings).

•A number of healthful desserts, such as pears in red wine or orange crêpe suzette.

All of this is washed down with Italian wine and mixed with plenty of laughter and conversation.

“The convivial atmosphere is a joy for everyone,” said Larry Pisoni, founder of Gourmet Italia. “The weather and the seasons become secondary, as long as the participants feel they are learning useful, tasty and healthy recipes accompanied by the proper wines. We find that Americans are open-minded and very receptive to the Mediterranean diet because most know that the conventional food offered in America contains chemicals and ingredients that contribute to obesity and other illnesses. They are searching for real food, which we offer.”

The Pisonis started teaching classes in healthful cooking in 1978, partnering with hotels on the Riviera, then the Alps, Venice, the Amalfi Coast and the northern Italian lakes. Larry founded Gourmet Italia in 1994, working with small factories run by Italian families who shared his vision. From the late 1990s to 2005, Gourmet Italia began operating bistros in American commissaries in Europe and supplying them with its products. The cooking classes draw military members who get to know the company as they do their shopping.

The classes at Lake Garda begin in the morning as the hotel’s head chef, Graziano Ped-razzoli, demonstrates cooking techniques and Carol Pisoni, an American who married her Italian husband almost 50 years ago, translates his Italian into English. Carol clearly knows her Italian cooking and offers her own bits of advice, such as, “If you throw your pasta and it sticks to the wall, you’ve overcooked it.”

After the demonstration, class members roll up their sleeves and work with pasta, cutting and filling tortellini (decorating the edges by crimping them with a fork), rolling and cutting dough for potato dumplings, and learning to spread batter evenly in a pan to make a crêpe — and to flip it at just the right time.

“People don’t realize that these recipes are so easy to make,” said Cindy Beard, a retired Army major living in Heidelberg. “It’s like, ‘Wow, we just made dinner in 5 minutes. Who knew?’ ”

“Everything takes so few ingredients and it’s very light,” said Mehall. “It’s not the heavy Ragu you grew up with. It’s light and it’s fast. I have Italian cookbooks but they don’t show easy dishes like these.“

Jim Demchsak, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Kaiserslautern, took the course with his 18-year-old daughter, Christine.

“The part I enjoyed most was the question-and-answer session with the chef, where we could ask how to make some of the foods we had at lunch or dinner that weren’t part of the program,” he said. “Although the class was introductory, I did still learn some new things, I had a great time doing it, and I got to spend some quality time with my daughter in a beautiful location.”

Sue Ellen Masselink, wife of a retired Army lieutenant colonel, came from Winter Park, Fla., to take the course.

“Though I enjoyed watching and learning from Chef Graziano, there’s nothing like hands-on experience when it comes to cooking,” she said. “I really enjoyed the opportunities to get up and participate in the process, which gave each of us a sense of accomplishment.”

A day or two into the class, the students open up and begin to tease one another and the chef. The decibel level of mealtime conversation and laughter goes up, and evenings often end in the hotel bar, where Larry regales the students with stories over more good Italian wine. Afternoons are free for touring the Lake Garda area, shopping and relaxing.

The Pisonis have held more than 200 cooking courses throughout the years, teaching about 3,000 people. Now they are planning to introduce their products into the U.S. market, concentrating on commissaries, Whole Foods Market and online sales.

“As soon as the American food companies realize that enough customers are demanding genuine food products, they will adapt and finally provide good food in order to be competitive,” said Larry Pisoni. “America is ready for a food revolution.”

Know & Go

Gourmet Italia offers three-day courses four times a year at the Hotel Piccolo Mondo on northern Italy’s Lake Garda and at the Gaarten Hotel in Asiago, Italy. Classes cost $595, double occupancy, and include nine hours of cooking instruction, recipe book, Gourmet Italia apron, room, all meals, and a guided tour of a winery (Torbole) or a cheese factory (Asiago). The single supplement is $30 per night.

Classes are scheduled at the Piccolo Mondo Oct. 22-25 and at the Gaarten Hotel Nov. 25-28. Dates for 2011 will be announced in September.

Groups of 10 or more can request a class on dates other than those scheduled.

For reservations, e-mail Larry Pisoni at gi-one@gourmet-italia.com. The website is www.gourmet-italia.com.

The chef’s secrets

Among some of the tidbits offered in the class by Carol Pisoni of Gourmet Italia and head chef Graziano Pedrazoli of the Hotel Piccolo Mondo on Lake Garda, Italy:

• Putting a half dozen or more ingredients in a sauce is an American idea, not an Italian one. Modern Italians use only a few ingredients in a dish, so that all of the flavors stand out.

• The tomato and herb topping that you spread on crusty bread is pronounced “bru-SKET-ta,” not “bru-SHET-ah,” as most Americans mispronounce it.

• Add sea salt to the water you are boiling for pasta. The mineral content of regular table salt is processed out of it, and sea salt has more flavor.

• With good-quality pasta, do not add oil to the water or your sauce will slip off.

• Good-quality pasta should not be rinsed after it’s cooked.

• Instead of pouring the sauce over a mound of pasta, put the pasta into the pot of hot sauce and gently stir with two wooden spoons from the bottom up as if you were tossing a salad. The advantage is that the pasta absorbs more flavor from the sauce and doesn’t cool as fast.

• The name of the Italian dessert tiramisu translates as “Pick me up.”

• You don’t have to be a master chef to cook the Mediterranean way, you just have to think outside the packaged food box and use fresh ingredients, being careful not to overcook them.

• For more tips, say the Pisonis, “Come to our course!”

carpenter.jolene@stripes.com

Graziano Pedrazzoli, head chef of the Piccolo Mondo Hotel in Torbole, northern Italy, talks with Goumet Italia students Jim Demchsak, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Kaiserslautern, and Barbara Acevedo of RAF Lakenheath, England.
JOLENE CARPENTER/STARS AND STRIPES

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