This past Fall I had the most wonderful week at The Awaiting Table cooking school in lovely Lecce, Italy, a small baroque city located in Puglia - the heel of Italy’s ‘boot.’ I had never traveled to this part of Italy before, so was excited to learn about a new region, and not quite sure what to expect. I flew into Rome and took an easy 5+ hour, smooth and scenic train ride to Lecce. The train station in Lecce is small and simple to navigate – a tiny taxi was waiting just outside the station (although the kind folks at the school will be delighted to pick you up if you prefer). A few minutes later, the taxi pulled into the walled city and I had to catch my breath. Lecce is remarkably beautiful and built from the most gorgeous golden yellow stone. It literally glows.
That first evening our group met in the piazza and Silvestro Silvestori, the school’s owner and director, met us there and guided us through winding stone streets a short distance to The Awaiting Table. Large wooden doors swung open to reveal an interior courtyard (where Silvestro’s adorable vintage Fiat 500 lives). Just one more set of doors and The Awaiting Table greets you. I really don’t have the words to describe how welcoming, charming, quirky, vibrant, cozy and wonderful this place is. It is not set up like a formal, antiseptic school at all, but is truly a well-lived-in and well-loved home. You will feel as if you are gaining a rare and unique glimpse into real culinary life here, rather than being ‘taught’ classroom style – although you will likely learn more than you ever could in a traditional setting.
Our first dinner was waiting for us in the school’s kitchen. A former stable, the kitchen was a delightful sight to behold. Complete with dried herbs on lines criss-crossing the ceiling, brightly colored walls adorned with vintage photographs and prints, uneven stone floors (ladies, don’t bring heels!), intricate tiles, a wall full of colorful colanders, beautiful windows, tall wooden doors - rustic, but with every imaginable convenience. I've attempted to capture part of it in the drawing above. The kitchen was dimly lit by an array of glittering candles and we set about getting know the cuisine and wine of Puglia, and each other.
Each morning began at 10:00 a.m. with coffee in Antonio’s shop – the sweetest man in the world – then we were off to the market to gather the ingredients for the day’s lunch. Silvestro and the kind folks at the market (actually market(s)) guided us through the local ingredients – their history, lore, uses, etc. – and we left with overflowing bags in tow and smiles on our faces, and headed back to the kitchen to prepare our lunch. We were provided with a leisurely break in the afternoon, then back to the school at 6:00 p.m. to prepare dinner for the evening. Dinners were long and lovely. The wine flowed, and we left satisfied, happy, and proud of our accomplishments. The week was punctuated by an intimate tour of the city with the amazingly brilliant Simona, and a trip to the lovely seaside city of Otranto.
The pace was pitch-perfect and I’m amazed at how much I learned. I am now confidently able to make my own pasta (a variety of shapes, but most notably the region’s signature shape, orecchiette), whittle and prepare whole artichokes, de-beard fresh mussels, clean squid, whip up a seafood soup, and make my own sausage. It’s true! I’ve been to many cooking courses and have come home feeling a bit wobbly on executing the dishes own my own – constantly referring to recipes and fumbling with notes, almost certain I’d forgotten something. Perhaps it’s the true experience – the market, the instruction, the doing, the camaraderie – that makes replicating the dishes at home seem effortless - like second nature.
Silvestro is wonderful; passionate and knowledgeable about all culinary-things-Puglia (with a wry sense of humor) and is a sommelier to boot, so can provide true enlightenment as it relates to the regional cuisine and wines. The staff at the school is beyond awesome. Giorgio, the school’s administrator, is energetic, fun and delightful and will help you with anything (I mean anything!) you need in terms of logistics or assistance and can make miracles happen immediately. Need to change your train? Done! Need help with your hotel? Done! Need to make a copy of something? Done! Giuseppe helps Silvestro in the kitchen and will be with you every step of the way for the week. He is so dear - kind, patient, warm and is a wonderful teacher in his own right. There is no better person to have at your side for the week – we all loved him so much. And Anna silently and skillfully goes about whisking away dishes, pots, pans and plates so that you feel as if kitchen angels are afoot.On top of the amazing knowledge you will gain about the region, the city, and its cuisine, the week is filled with a special joy and warmth that is truly unique. By day two, you will feel as if you are cooking alongside true friends. It’s so rare these days to have the chance to really spend quality time with people; breaking bread together; laughing, learning, and becoming close. Those of us who attended have stayed connected via social media and are already planning our next visit (castle course, here we come!). I know we will all stay in touch and remain friends forever. If you ever have the opportunity to visit The Awaiting Table, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s perfect and beautiful and you will absolutely love it there.