It astonishes me that two people can experience relatively the same thing and walk away with absolutely disparate opinions.
I’ve held off writing this post to allow the blush of Italy to wear off from me a bit so I didn’t completely lash out. In February, I was irritated when a reader named Luka sent me her post describing her time at ICI as analogous to culinary hell. Deposits had been paid – I couldn’t back out now and go to Carpigiani’s sunny Gelato University where each Facebook post shows crowds of happy students making heavenly gelato. I thought, “Well, I’ll just suck it up, learn what I can and get through it.” I was going to Gelato School in Italy – and this was how I was approaching it – thanks to that post (bad me for being so easily influenced).
Maybe she set the bar so low for me that I couldn’t help but be pleased. And I was pleased – with the hotel, with the food, with Chef and the class. It was so much more than I imagined.
Luka called the town “deserted”. It’s a resort town during low season. I didn’t go there to party and pick up on swarthy Italian men so I didn’t mind the lack of nightlife. Days were spent in the kitchen until 4 pm – sometimes until 6 when we were having pasta lessons. Sure, I would have liked a nearby restaurant or bar that I could pop into for a pre-dinner aperitivo, but a quick 10-minute walk down the hillside found me on a beautiful, quiet beach where I could sun, swim and have some “me” time.
The hotel was described in her post as “mostly uninhabitable”. It is a typical quirky Italian 3-star hotel (as it was described on the ICI website). The hotel is a bit “Faulty Towers-esque” – the staff is a bit bumbling and it was iffy if breakfast was going to be available. When I checked in, however, I found myself in a 2-bedroom apartment with a dining room, living room, kitchen, bathroom and balcony looking over the Ionian Sea. My room was clean, the water was hot and the views from the balcony were amazing.
Luka called the food “fit for a dive bar- primarily pasta with broccoli, a sauce make by cooking the hell out of the cheapest thing that was a the market until it fell apart and tossing that with noodles”. She complained that the wine was cheap and limited. During my first night, I was afraid this part may be true – I arrived a day early and was served the banquet food that was prepared for the wedding going on in the dining room – I’ve eaten worse, but it definitely was not good. But starting the next day, once Chef John and Chef Andreas were cooking, we were fed handmade charcuterie, freshly made cheeses, sweet marmelata, marinated vegetables, crepes, handmade pasta, pork, veal, fresh fish, beef, and eggs with bright orange yolks. One pasta dish was loaded with big flakes of freshly shaved black truffles – my mouth is craving it right now. Wine was good and plentiful. Breakfast was meager (supplied by the hotel) – I would drink a foamy cappuccino and smother a sad croissant with Nutella, which satisfied me until Chef would announce it was “time for a snack” – usually around 10ish, followed by lunch and dinner. We ate well. Food was fresh, varied and plentiful.
I found chef to be fun and engaging and willing to pace the class to our needs. Luka called him condescending and verbally abusive. She said he threw things, had tantrums and that he was unpredictable with a possible personality disorder. He’s an Italian from the Bronx – of course he’s not Mr. Rogers (what chef is?) – but I saw none of this behavior during class. Admittedly, the daily curriculum can be loose, which can be good (Chef John and Chef Andreas stayed late for an impromptu pasta making lesson at my request) but can also mean topics are forgotten or we ran short on time on others. It’s impossible to learn everything about gelato in one week so I don’t feel like we were short-changed.
From my time at Culinary School, I’m used to doing things myself – from preparing the midday meal to peeling apples to cleaning the kitchen – Gelato school was more focused on demonstration than participation. I was gently chided more than once for cleaning up after myself and was reminded that I didn’t “have to” help prepare lunch (for me, it’s not “have to,” it’s “want to”). I would call the class “low sweat and low mess” – closer to a cooking vacation than the rigors of professional Culinary School.
Despite it not being as fast, furious and hands-on as I was expecting, I found school to be highly enjoyable – and I’d return to ICI in a heartbeat. Now, I just need to decide between charcuterie and cheese-making.
a sampling of the “dive bar” food: