She makes it look effortless. But we found out how hard it is to put together a good cooking class.

A friend of ours runs a cooking school and bed and breakfast in the hills adjacent to Assisi. The friend, Letizia Mattiacci, has a, warmth and sense of humor that puts everyone immediately at ease. It’s probably why her school, La Madonna del Piatto, is so popular. Letizia herself is often quoted in articles overseas about Umbrian cooking, and she’s put out a couple of lavishly illustrated cookbooks,

She doesn’t do it alone; Letizia’s husband Ruurd de Jong is her roadie, co-manager, photographer and muse. But he was in the hospital and Letizia needed help when a six-member extended family came calling. We’d offered to help, and last week I got a text message summoning us, if we could, to her farmhouse a few hills away. Of course, we replied, and we soon found ourselves driving up the winding road alongside Monte Subasio, the mountain at whose base the city of Assisi lies, and in whose forests the saint took refuge whenever he needed to commune with the divine.

We’re pretty accomplished cooks, and I try to do a good prep if I’m going to do anything halfway complicated. What I didn’t realize was how much hard work and organization goes into even a relatively laid-back, informal cooking class. And while I try to clean up as I mess up, I realized how absolutely crucial constant cleanup is when more than a couple of people are preparing a multicourse meal in a relatively small space.

We soon found out. Our smiling, sociable friend transformed herself into a friendly but firm taskmaster as she ordered us around her kitchen.

“Have you had breakfast?” Letizia asked. After responding “yeah, we had something at home,” she immediately put me and The Spartan Woman to work. First up: Prepare the dining room. Letizia’s classes are typically in the late morning, after which the class gets to eat what its members cooked. On the menu that day was a winter squash soup with spinach and croutons, potato gnocchi with tomato sauce, a chicken dish with balsamic vinegar, and chocolate panna cotta. She was particular when certain cutlery could be put out: first only spoons for the soup course, and then the rest. We neophytes were lucky that the cupboards in the dining room were all well-organized and labeled.

Pronto per pranzo/Ready for lunch

Back into the kitchen—I got to wipe down the cabinets while The Spartan Woman bustled around making sure cooking surfaces were all spotless. Then some prep work. While Letizia had done the bulk of it (she reserves class prep work for the important stuff–anyone can pour milk into a measuring cup), there were some odds and ends. So I peeled garlic and measured out flour and milk for the gnocchi and the panna cotta, TSW did some prep that I forgot. By this time, arrival time was drawing near so who had time to watch what someone else was doing?

Eleven o’clock came and it’s time! The class arrived on time—you could tell they weren’t from here, where being “late” by 15 minutes is standard procedure. They spoke English too, something that was a bit rare and weird to us outside our home, where we obviously speak our native tongue to one another. That is, unless an Italian word seems to fit better.

I can’t tell you much of the class, especially the first half, as TSW was the designated class kitchen elf. She facilitated, for want of a better word, helping out with the logistics, cleaning utensils and pots and plates as they used them, pouring wine for the adults (the class included two children). Yes, wine. It may have been late morning, but a little wine goes extremely well with a cooking class in the hills of Umbria. While this was going on, I was sipping some Rosso di Montefalco myself and deleting a zillion emails on my iPad. TSW was really taken with the commercial-grade dishwasher: It requires as astounding 90 seconds—seconds!—to clean and sterilize a full load.

Getting ready to make some gnocchi.

Once done, we escorted the class to the dining room with their soup, some more wine and mineral water while TSW portioned out their gnocchi. It’s always funny to see the differences. I looked at the random pattern of dumplings and remembered which ones I counted and which I hadn’t (accuracy be damned but I knew I was close), while TSW, with her years of teaching and organizing behind her, lined up her gnocchi in tidy straight rows, easy to count, easy to be accurate. No wonder I depend on her to organize my life. (My ex-colleagues can attest to my anarchic pace and organization. My saving grace is that I’m fast Except when I’m not.) Our objective: 30 gnocchi per person,

At this point, I re-engaged as the busboy. You know the drill: A good busperson unobtrusively monitors beverage consumption, offering refills when needed; makes sure diners have the right silverware and that nothing goes seriously awry. This being an informal setting, this busboy also answered the many questions the diners had. Why were we living in Umbria? Where were we from? How is the Covid situation? Is it hard to find a place to live? (Because we like it. New York. Better than the US, almost like Denmark. No.)

Between courses, TSW, Letizia and I hid out in the secret room off the kitchen, eating some of the excess, grabbing a little wine, and catching up on everything since we last saw each other a few weeks before. Soon, the diners were finished and the class was over. “I really like the communal aspect of the class,” said one of the members. “At most of the class I’ve taken, everyone has his or her own stove.” That was a fitting comment to sum up why we’re here—the compulsive social nature of Italian life may not be for everyone, but it suits us fine—and keeps people coming back to Letizia’s.

It helps that La Madonna del Piatto is is in a beautiful setting:

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