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The Secrets of Traditional Italian Cooking

Learn From the Owners of Cook Italy in Medieval Village of Tolfa

Co-owner of Fontana del Papa Cooking School
Fontana del Papa Cooking School co-owner Assuntina Antonacci pictured in her kitchen.

Tolfa, a medieval village of Etruscan origins, lies nestled in the rolling hills north of Rome. Here in the secluded countryside scattered with Etruscan ruins is located Fontana del Papa, a B&B and cooking school, “Cook Italy” run by Assuntina Antonacci and her husband, Claudio. This couple, native to the region, offer their guests a unique opportunity to learn the secrets of authentic Italian home cooking using local products from their land. From the gathering of fresh vegetables from the lush garden next to the farmhouse where guests stay, to the preparing of handmade pasta, sauces, roasts, and traditional desserts, participants learn and do, cooking some of their own meals. Guided step by step in the kitchen by Assuntina and her English speaking staff, even people with little previous experience can master basic cooking techniques and create exquisite meals. Claudio, a certified sommelier, teaches participants how to recognize quality olive oil and wine.

Guests lodge in a 15th century farmhouse that can accommodate up to six people at a time in charming double rooms, beautifully remodeled with brick floors, stone walls, wooden beams, and furnished with antiques. The bedrooms are quiet, cozy, and private, each with its own bathroom and a view of the countryside. There are several common areas, indoors and out, where guests may socialize, a library stocked with books on Italy and food, and a swimming pool.

The house exudes an old-fashioned charm, decorated with objects recalling the peasant life which once unfolded within its old stone walls: pots, pans, and braziers of copper and bronze, kitchen utensils of cast iron and wood. The spacious kitchen where the lessons are conducted is both modern and rustic, with state-of-the-art appliances, stainless steel and old wood surfaces, dried herbs in bunches hanging from the ceiling beams alongside garlands of tomatoes and hot peppers. Just outside the kitchen is a patio for outdoor dining and a wood oven for baking pizzas and bread.

Fresh garlic use cooking school
Fresh ingredients like locally grown garlic are used in cooking lessons.

I visit on a Sunday. Today’s lesson is devoted to preparing ravioli stuffed with fresh porcini mushrooms gathered by Claudio that morning from the woods on his land. “Just imagine what you would have paid in a London shop for those!” remarks Alice, one of my “classmates” admiring the brimming basket of mushrooms Claudio plops down on the kitchen table, still fragrant with the scent of earth and humus. He teaches us how to clean them under the kitchen tap.

My co-students are Alice, an antiquedealer from London and Michael, a teacher, and his wife Vivienne, a hospital administrator, from Ohio. Each of us is assigned a course and followed in the various phases of preparing it. Alice and I do the pasta, Vivienne makes the roast pork with fried green peppers just plucked from the garden, and Michael turns out his first jam tart made with Assuntina’s homemade fig jam.

At lunchtime we gather round a long table beside the great hearth in the dining room to taste the fruit of our labors, and we are indeed very proud of what we have produced. The meal is delicious, the company superb, to say nothing of the view. The dining room windows look out over the olive grove of 500 trees from which Claudio produces organic extra virgin cold pressed organic olive oil. Olive oil is the subject of conversation at lunch as Claudio explains the process of cold pressing. He tells us that the olive harvest is only two weeks away, and they are booked up with reservations of people who want to help them pick the olives, and take part in this time-honored ritual of autumn in the Mediterranean.

Students at table
Students gathering around long wooden table after the meal.

Cook Italy is run on a flexible schedule, according to the needs and desires of participants. Courses may last a week, a long weekend, or a single day, combining cooking lessons and tutored wine tastings with visits to the Etruscan site of Tarquinia, jaunts to Rome, hikes or walking tours of the countryside, with free time set aside to read, write, or wander.

The friendly and relaxed atmosphere and the flexible schedule make Fontana del Papa an ideal choice for independent travelers, couples, or singles seeking off-the-beaten track destinations for cultural and gastronomical tourism.

For More Info

Cook Italy’s website provides comprehensive information about its classes, including those designed for families and kids.

Different types of accommodations are available at the Fontana del Papa Cooking School in Tolfa, ranging from the bed and breakfasts, running from €60-€100) to week-long stays that are more all-inclusive in terms of meals and activities.

At the time of this writing, the basic cost in the most inexpensive weekly room is €1200 (approx. $1,650) a week per person and the most expensive room is the junior suite at €1,400 (approx. $1,900) a week per person. Costs are all inclusive, covering 6 nights with breakfast, lunches, dinners, and cooking lessons and tutored wine tastings (see the website for each year's unique activities).

It is also possible to organize shorter or longer cooking courses. Airport transfer, excursions, painting lessons, guided tours, and guided hiking expeditions are all available for extra fees.

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