Be careful what you wish for when you sign up for a week at Silvestro Silvestori’s cooking school because it will unleash in you a lifelong fascination with Italy and its food. Because that’s exactly what happened to me a decade ago after my five days under Silvestro’s tutelage in the wonderfully atmospheric town of Lecce, which is so far south on the heel of Italy’s boot that it’s closer to Corfu than it is to northern Puglia.
So impressed was I with Lecce, the Salento and Pugliese food that I flew all the way back from Texas only 3 months later to explore the entire Salento coastline from Porto Cesareo to Polignano a Mare. Elena joined me on what was our first trip together and a year later I was living in Italy. So beware, Silvestro’s school combined with the Salento can be a potent life-changing experience.
The term ‘cooking school’ doesn’t do justice to Silvestro’s The Awaiting Table. I’ve been to other cooking schools since, including one in Tuscany for an entire month, which are more typical of the genre in that they teach you more of the ‘how’ in cooking and less of the ‘why’. ‘How’ is easy because it’s just about learning and repetition; the ‘why’ however is always more complicated because it involves an understanding of the social, economic and geographic forces that have shaped a region’s cuisine.
A local tv station turned up to film our class while we were making sausages. Luckily Silvestro quickly took over, thereby avoiding a public relations disaster. He makes it look easy.
Traditional Italian dishes don’t survive for centuries without both an historical and sensory rationale and you will emerge from a week with Silvestro with an appreciation of how much you still don’t know, but it will have awakened in you a desire to find out more so you can relate every Italian dish to its regional origins and also perhaps bark at your guests when they want to sprinkle parmigiano reggiano on the delicious orecchiette con le cime di rapa that you just put in front of them.
It wasn’t an Italian, and certainly not a Pugliese, who came up with the expression “everything tastes better with cheese”, but perusing English language websites on Italian cooking you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Le orecchiette con le cime di rapa was a vegan dish before anyone had even begun to use the word. In Bari they occasionally included an anchovy but cheese and/or sausage would never be added in Italy.
Don’t panic when there are no scales or measuring cups on on the table in front of you at The Awaiting Table because Silvestro is about to teach you the ‘feel’ of food preparation. Much like knowing when the proofing process is complete and your bread is ready to bake, the texture and look of the impasto for fresh pasta will tell you when it’s ready to be shaped.
My 86 year old suocera, like most of the war generation in Italy, never weighs anything in her kitchen; It has long been an instinctual process for her as it is for Silvestro. Helping his students develop feel and intuition in the kitchen is Silvestro’s mission at The Awaiting Table.
Looking back I am glad that my introduction to Italian cooking was in Puglia with Silvestro because the cucina povera of Puglia with its locally sourced fresh ingredients cooked in the simplest way possible was for me, as an absolute novice at that time, the best way to learn that a complete meal in terms of both nutrition and taste requires only three or four high quality ingredients.
I now shudder at the memory of all those complicated sauces slathered over fresh fish and meat from the heyday of French restaurants 40 years ago and even the French-influenced food of northern Italy is too rich for me to eat on a regular basis.
I spent so much time goofing off taking photos that Silvestro gave me the messiest job on 'fish friday', cleaning squid. A skill that has stood me in good stead ever since.
I haven’t been back to Silvestro’s school since my first visit in 2013 though we’ve been back to Puglia twice in recent years to explore the northern coastline that we missed on that first trip. I like to think I’ve now graduated from cooking school but I’m sure there’s much more I could learn from Silvestro as he’s continued to expand the scope and depth of his courses. This year is the 20th anniversary of his first class and his itinerary for the full one week course at his house in Lecce is much more comprehensive and wide ranging than I recall from ten years ago.
The one week course includes a day trip to the nearby coastal town of Otranto where the church still displays the skulls of the 800 martyrs who were killed resisting the Ottoman raiders in 1480 (photo above left). Another day trip you should squeeze in is Gallipoli where since time immemorial fishermen have spent their Sunday mornings mending their nets (above right).
Silvestro is now incorporating more fully all his talents and knowledge into the classes so wine and olive oil have quite rightly been given greater emphasis. Silvestro has formal qualifications in both disciplines and in the case of olive oil he is not only a teacher but has also been a producer of high quality extra virgin olive oil for the last 8 years, offering three different monovarietal oils from traditional Pugliese olives.
No word yet as to when Silvestro will start making his own wine but nothing about him would surprise me and he’s had lots of experience helping others make their wines so it’s probably just a matter of time.
Silvestro's front door is so enormous you only need to open a quarter of it to get in. Silvestro has a thing for plates and lamps.
What hasn’t changed however is the location of the Lecce course and every time I make one of Silvestro’s dishes at home in Lucca I am transported back to his tastefully converted stable in the centro storico of Lecce where, through an impressive portone off a nondescript alleyway, you walk through a series of cosy and cluttered rooms leading to a magical kitchen.
It’s a complete riot of color, an Aladdin’s cave with every nook and cranny filled with all sorts of useful things you never knew you needed.
High above your head there is a maze of wires supporting a dense forest of tied bundles of all manner of things drying in the heat of the kitchen like peppers, garlic, bay leaves and the like. And then above those sit the biggest pasta pots I’ve ever seen, or perhaps they’re actually Silvestro’s original bath tubs. The kitchen opens onto an enclosed courtyard, an essential haven of peace and quiet for those of us who have experienced living in a bustling centro storico in Italy.
If there’s a more atmospheric place to cook I’ve yet to find it but Silvestro has another location which I’ve heard is equally impressive but very different. It’s a 15th century castle converted and expanded into a stately home incorporating neo-Gothic and late Baroque elements and with even an old olive mill in the cellars. It’s located south of Lecce close to the tiny but beautiful medieval town of Castro with its famous sea caves that remind me of the ones further north near Vieste.
The castle came into use in 2008 when the local baron took the measurements of the Lecce kitchen and replicated it 8 times larger and from the video below it looks just as colorful as the Lecce site but can accommodate large groups for the annual tomato sauce week and the very popular bike, cucina and vino week.
These are two of my favorite short videos (though both are several years old) among the many that Silvestro has on his website and youtube channel. The first is a montage of various courses at both locations:
The second video is for everyone who restricts themselves to only cooking pre-filleted fish and is intimidated by the Italian way of cooking the cleaned fish whole, as I used to be. Silvestro demystifies the process in a couple of minutes:
When you first meet Silvestro you do something of a double take because he speaks Italian like a native Italian and yet English is also very clearly his mother tongue. He was born in the US to Italian parents and left while still a teenager, graduating remotely and then subsequently acquiring two more university degrees in Italy, covering a range of disciplines from art and music to languages.
He tried his hand at various jobs - baker, butcher, waiter and high school teacher but all the while spending more time and energy learning to cook before the tug of his Salento family heritage became too great to resist.
30+ years later he is a widely respected food and wine expert who also finds the time to write for various publications and teach university courses. With Italy now in something of a demographic doom loop it’s a great pity that the vast numbers of young talented Italians that have fled this country for northern Europe can’t be persuaded to follow his example and return.
Italy needs more people like Silvestro Silvestori.