In many Italian homes, the heart and soul is in the basement. That's Nona's bunker, where she rattles and hums, rolls and stirs, preparing feasts for large family gatherings. Many Italian cooks have honed their pasta craftsmanship near washers, dryers and hot-water tanks.
At Merante Gifts, located in the heart of Pittsburgh's Little Italy (otherwise known as Bloomfield), one must go upstairs to get at the essence. On the second floor of the shop, a renovated kitchen recreates the feel of Nona's gastronomic foxhole. It's where shop owner Maria Palmieri offers three-hour Italian cooking classes on weeknights and weekend mornings.
La Cucina Rustica, the present identity of a former apartment, is both classroom and dining room. Palmieri and assistant Linda Falcione instruct students in a non-intimidating setting, devoid of hulking, commercial appliances and sky-scraping toques.
"It's extremely informal," laughs Palmieri, who's offered the classes for two years. "I help people to cook the food they may have learned but forgot, as well as dishes they never learned at all."
Palmieri, one of seven children, grew up in an Italian kitchen, soaking up generations of know-how. Her family owns Groceria Merante in Oakland, a 30-year-old market known for its homemade sausages and fresh, local produce.
"It's kind of amazing who comes to these classes," said Palmieri. "Professionals, neighbors, seniors, even teen-age boys."
Participants learn to make varieties of pasta, sauces, pizza and mozzarella, among other dishes. Some roll up their sleeves and shape pasta; others prefer to watch from the large, antique dining-room table.
Come spring, Palmieri will teach classes using produce from the nearby Bloomfield farmers' market. "We'll go over and see what's there, then come back and cook," she explains.
Classes cost $40 and run for three hours. Private group classes are also available, and Palmieri can tailor instruction to participants' tastes.
"Afterwards, we all sit and eat and talk," says Palmieri. "These classes are about much more than just cooking."
Merante Gifts, 4723 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-682-3370 or www.merante-gifts.com