Many thanks to our good friends Kris and Ellen for visiting Benano — and special thanks to Kris for writing this post about our visit with Chef Lorenzo at Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto:
If I were to write a book about our recent visit with good friend Karen Smith, I’d call it “Eat, Pray, Cook.” Forget the Julia Roberts movie and bestselling book. Cooking is love when you have delicious fresh ingredients, a beautiful setting, a fabulous friend and family, lots of laughter and a charming cooking instructor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last month, for our daughter’s 13th birthday, we paid a long overdue visit to Italy to sample la dolce vita. As part of the trip, Ellen and I traveled to the medieval hill town of Orvieto to rendezvous with forever friend Karen, with whom I had worked many years ago in Cincinnati. Karen had urged us to spend a few days in her version of heaven on earth in nearby Benano. We left the planning to her and had no idea what fun awaited us.
In addition to all the beauty that is Umbria – rolling olive groves, twisting roads that lead to everywhere and nowhere, sprawling vistas with skies and mountains that look beautiful in both rain and sunshine — Ellen and I were treated to a wonderful day in Orvieto as students of Chef Lorenzo Polegri. Karen has known him for many years and recommended we forgo the cooking class I’d found in Florence to experience Chef Lorenzo’s instead. Let me assure you, she knows her recommendations.
Our class started with an early morning trip to the open air market, where Chef Lorenzo introduced us to local merchants and explained the difference between various cuts of meat, types of cheese, varieties of vegetables – what an education!
His energy was contagious, and despite the cold, we were engaged (and engorged!) by the time we arrived back at his wonderful restaurant, Ristorante Zeppelin, for the instructional portion of our “class.”
In a kitchen stocked with every ingredient you could dream of, all the right tools and utensils, and culinary students to clean up afterwards (who knew how great this could be?), we developed a menu and started our tasks at hand. Lovely Lorenzo, with his delightful sense of humor and near perfect English, enthusiastically explained how to prepare artichokes for breading and frying (one more thing off my bucket list).
He and Ellen then settled in to make a sensational salad, focaccia and pasta and a delicious citrus custard. Eggplants were stacked and drizzled with delicious sauces created impromptu by all of us as we toasted, tasted, tested and revised.
Who needs a recipe when you can go with your gut, Chef explained. Don’t get hung up with too many rules when you cook. Do what feels right and tastes good. And believe me, everything tasted good. Truly everything.
Ellen enjoyed the pasta prep most, I think, but was also impressed that some of our food was actually served to lunch guests at the restaurant.
She felt so grown up in her white chef’s apron and well-appointed kitchen. She passed on the Prosecco poured for us as mealtime approached but was in a celebratory mood for sure – and so were Karen and I. We toasted each other, Chef Lorenzo and the chance to savor the flavors and experience of cooking, learning and enjoying each other in such a fun-filled way.
I was so moved by the experience that en route home to the U.S. I read Chef’s new book, The Etruscan Chef, from cover-to-cover. As much a memoir as a cookbook, it evoked memories from our trip and our day with Lorenzo. It features recollections of how he learned to make umbrichelli as a young boy and offered recipes for focaccia and many other taste treats that will no doubt remind us of our time together every time we prepare them.
I encourage anyone who is considering a trip to Italy to head straight to Umbria and make good friends with Karen and Chef Lorenzo. There’s so much that’s special about them and what they do there.