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There are plenty of reasons to fall in love with Italy, but most of us who are smitten will agree that it’s really about the food. The best way to deepen your affection? Go beyond the restaurant and into the kitchen, where some of Italy’s greatest culinary legends are willing to share their secrets.

agata-1Mamma Agata is one such iconic chef who teaches from her beautiful clifftop home in Ravello, two hours west of Positano. I’ll never forget the day I spent there, cooking with Glenn and an intimate group of friends. It was right after our wedding in Rome. We invited some of our closest guests to spend the first week of our honeymoon (it was a nine week honeymoon, after all) with us on the Amalfi Coast and since we had a mix of all ages, a private cooking class was the perfect experience for everyone to share together.

Through the foodie grapevine, we had heard that Mamma Agata’s was THE place to go learn about Amalfi Coast cooking. Before opening her school 13 years ago, Mamma had been the chef to Hollywood stars like Liz Taylor, Frederico Fellini, Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart—who particularly loved her famous lemon cake. Today students from around the world (including celebs like Pierce Brosnan and Woody Harrelson) come not only to learn the secret behind Mamma’s signature tomato sauce, but for the amazing experience of cooking one thousand feet above the ocean, surrounded by gardens with epic views of the rocky coast below.

agata-2Cooking with Mamma Agata lived up to all expectations. Arriving to the villa, we were so warmly welcomed by her daughter, Chiara, who made us feel instantly right at home. The school is really a family business, with Chiara running marketing, taking care of students and translating the classes into multiple languages, while her husband Gennaro, a chef and sommelier, is the heir to Mamma’s secrets. (After cooking with Mamma for over 20 years, these days Gennaro leads most classes at the school.)

Our day began in the late morning with lemon cake and cappuccino on the terrace. We then moved into the kitchen for a three hour class, complete with demonstrations and hands-on guidance for our group agata-3of 10 (the max for each class). Throughout the class Chiara shared Mamma’s stories of cooking for icons like Jackie Kennedy, who she noted was not pretentious at all and even rinsed her own coffee cup in the sink.

Afterwards we enjoyed a tour of the grounds and were invited to pick some fruit and veggies to take home should we desire. We then gathered out on the terrace with a few bottles of wine for a leisurely Italian lunch. It was absolutely glorious. We were so proud of our work and we ate and ate and ate to our heart’s delight. To this day when I get together with those friends, we still make those recipes we learned from Mamma Agata. It’s become a very special memory for all of us.

Six years later I’m delighted to share with all of you a selection of recipes from Mamma Agata’s award-winning cookbook, Simple and Genuine,. Following Mamma’s secrets, these classic coastal Italian dishes are easy to make and fabulous to serve at an intimate summer soirée or a big family dinner. So grab your man, your BFFs or a few members of the fam and enjoy a special meal together, Amalfi-style.

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Pizza
Margherita


Serves 4
Ingredients:
Pizza
Mamma Agata’s Pizza Dough
1 cup Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or butter or lard)
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves
Pinch of sea salt

Sauce
1 quart vine ripened tomato puree ( Roma Tomatoes)
10 fresh cherry tomatoes
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of fresh garlic
3 leaves fresh basil

Dough
500 gr or 2 1/8 cup our (Type “00” or white pastry)
15 gr or 1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of sea salt
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
25 gr or 1 ¾ Tablespoons dry yeast
125 ml or ½ cup lukewarm/tepid water
125 ml or ½ cup room-temperature milk

Directions:
DOUGH
Dissolve the yeast in a bowl with the lukewarm/tepid water and milk. NOTE: Do NOT let this sit for more than 3 minutes before adding it to the flour.

On your worktop, put the flour in a circular mound, adding a pinch of salt. Add the olive oil to the flour in a circular motion, and begin to mix it together. Sprinkle the sugar across the flour.

Add the water, milk and yeast mixture into the dough and mix well using your hands. Add a little more water to the dough—if necessary—the dough needs to be moist and above all soft.

Fold the dough towards you and knead it several times. Place the pizza dough in a floured bowl and cover with a dry, clean towel. Let the dough rest for at least an hour to allow the dough to rise before preparation of your pizza.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
Dissolve the yeast in lukewarm water and milk – it is important not to make the water too hot or too cold, as this will only kill the active bacteria in the yeast and in the end, your dough will not rise. The milk is a little Mamma Agata secret. It makes the dough very soft; you will love it. This is one recipe where it really can make a difference to use the type “00” flour. Please do your best to find it. Do not overwork the dough or add too much flour. Both of these things will make the dough tougher.

SAUCE
In a saucepan, heat the olive oil, garlic and basil over a high flame. The high flame will release the oils in the fresh garlic to enhance the flavors of the sauce.

Add the tomato puree and cherry tomatoes and cook for 15 minutes, first over on a high flame until the sauce begins to boil, then lower the flame to simmer the sauce for the remaining time and cook for a further 15 minutes.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
The “Roma tomatoes” used to make this sauce should to be vine-ripened so they are sweet. Sweet tomatoes are the key ingredient in many Italian dishes. If the tomatoes are not ripe and sweet, it is okay to add a spoonful of sugar to sweeten the tomato sauce.

PIZZA
Pre-heat the oven to 200-degrees Celsius (400-degrees Fahrenheit). Spread olive oil (or butter or lard) across a baking sheet or pizza pan with your fingers.

Place the pizza dough into the middle of the pan and spread the dough to the edges of the baking sheet with your fingertips until the entire surface of the tray is covered with dough as uniformly as possible.

Add Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce to the top of the dough. Top the dough with mozzarella cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, a few fresh basil leaves and a pinch of salt.

If you like, you can also add a bit of oregano to the pizza for added flavor. However, the traditional Pizza Margherita does not call for it. Bake in the preheated oven for fifteen minutes to twenty minutes. Let the pizza sit for a couple of minutes (but not too long) before serving.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
Wet your fingers when you spread the dough so they do not stick while you are working with the dough. If your mozzarella cheese is in water, buy it two days before you want to make the pizza. Take the mozzarella cheese out of the water and place in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for two days to dry out (discarding the water). The excess water within the cheese all drains out and your pizza will not be soggy.

 

Gnocchi
alla Sorrentina


Serves 4
Ingredients:
1kg or about 2 lbs potatoes
300 gr or 10 ½ oz flour (“00” or white pastry)
50 gr or 1 ¾ oz Parmigiano chiese (grated)
1 egg
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Extra flour for the plate and work surface: 100 gr or 3 1/2 oz flour (“00” or white pastry)
500 ml or 2 cups of Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce (see pizza recipe)
200 gr or 7 oz mozzarella cheese
10 fresh basil leaves
1-2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions:
Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
It’s best to use older potatoes for this recipe, as they contain less water and will produce a nice soft texture after they are mashed.

Add whole, unpeeled potatoes to room-temperature salted water. Do NOT peel the potatoes or cut them because this will enhance their natural flavor. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to a low boil and cook the potatoes for 50 minutes.

Drain the potatoes and remove the skins. mash the peeled potatoes using a potato masher or ricer and place them on top of your work station. Add the grated Parmigiana cheese, the egg and flour to the potatoes and mix well forming a dough.

Take about 1/6 of the dough and roll it into a long thin cylindrical shape, about one-inch wide. Cut off small pieces of dough (about one inch long each) to create the individual dumplings/gnocchi. Using your thumb, roll the dumplings across a gnocchi board. If you do not own a gnocchi board, you can use a fork to mark notches in your gnocchi.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
The indentations created by the gnocchi board (or fork) catch the flavors of the sauce, so please do not forget this step!

Sprinkle a little flour onto a plate (to prevent sticking) and place the gnocchi on the plate of flour until you are ready to boil them. Boil a large pan of water with salt and extra virgin olive oil.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
Add a dash of extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt to the water used to boil the dumplings to avoid the gnocchi sticking to each other.

Place the dumplings into the boiling water. The dumplings will immediately sink to the bottom of the pan, but they will slowly begin to float to the top. As soon as they are floating, remove them from the water, place them in a colander, and rinse them with cold water (to stop the cooking process).
Place the dumplings on a serving dish and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over them to prevent the dumplings from sticking to each other.

Prepare Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce (see pizza recipe). In a large saucepan, add one cup of Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce. Then add the gnocchi and cover them with the remaining cup of Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce.

Add the mozzarella cheese and sprinkle the Parmigiano cheese on the gnocchi. Cook over low heat until the cheese melts. Place the gnocchi on a serving platter and garnish with fresh basil and a little extra virgin olive oil (if you wish). Serve hot!

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
If you wish, you may also add smoked provolone to the gnocchi (in addition to the mozzarella and Parmigiano cheeses) when you serve. A delicious variation is to bake this for approximately five minutes at 180-degrees Celsius (350-degrees Fahrenheit) to marry all of the flavors beautifully.

 

Polpette
di Mamma Agata


Serves 4
Ingredients:
200 gr or 7 oz bread (stale)
125 ml or ½ cup water
125 ml or ½ cup whole milk
½ kg or 1 lb ground meat: ½ ground beef and ½ ground pork
50 gr or 3 ½ Tablespoons grated Parmigiana cheese
3 eggs
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 garlic clove (very finely grated)
100 gr ot 7 Tablespoons flour (“00” or what pastry)
1 litre or 1 quart peanut or vegetable oil for frying (NOTE: Do not use olive oil)

Directions:
Remove the crust from the bread and discard it. Soak the bread in milk and water for five minutes to soften the bread, before mixing it with the ground beef and pork mixture. Stir the mixture well and squeeze out the excess milk and water with your hands. Place the moist bread on a plate and set aside.

Combine the ground beef and pork, the moist bread, the cheese, eggs, parsley and garlic with your hands in a large mixing bowl until all of the ingredients are combined into a soft mixture. Take a small amount of the mixture and roll it in between the palms of your hands to make golf ball sized meatballs and place them on a clean plate. Roll each meatball in flour before frying.

A healthy alternative to frying the meatballs is to place them into an oven dish with a drizzle of olive oil and bake at 150° C or 325° F until golden brown.

Prepare Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce (see pizza recipe). Add the meatballs to the prepared Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce on the stovetop; cover and simmer for about fifteen minutes.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
Only a little garlic is needed to make these meatballs perfect. If you use too much, you will only taste the garlic. Also, Mamma Agata prefers NOT to use a garlic press, but to grate or finely chop the garlic.

 

Zeppole
di Mamma Agata


Serves 4
Ingredients:
850 gr or ~1 ⅞ lb potatoes
125 ml or ½ cup whole milk
150 gt or 10 ½ Tablespoons butter
50 gr or 3 ½ Tablespoons cake yeast
(or substitute dry yeast)
1 kg or 2 ¼ lbs four (Fine “00” or white pastry flour)
150 gr or ⅔ cup sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon powder (for dough mixture)
2 Tablespoons baking powder
1 pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract/essence
Finely grated zest of the lemon
6 eggs
1 litre or 1 quart peanut or vegetable
oil for frying (NOTE: Do not use olive oil).
250 gr or 1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder (for sugar/cinnamon combination)

Directions:
Prepare all of your ingredients to be able to make the dough quickly, including the potatoes, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, sea salt, vanilla, lemon zest, and eggs. Put the butter and milk in a pan and set aside (to help the process go faster). Crack all of the eggs into a bowl.
Boil the potatoes in salted water until they are soft but not mushy.
Remove the potatoes from the water and let them cool to the touch. Remove the skins from the potatoes and discard the skins. Set the potatoes aside.
On your workstation, create a circular mound of flour with a hole in the center of the mound. Add sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and vanilla to the flour. Add lemon zest to the flour.

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
Boil the potatoes with the skins on, starting in cold salted water, and cooking for approximately fifty minutes. Letting the potatoes cool before peeling them enhances and preserves the flavor of the potatoes.

 

Homemade
Limoncello


Serves 4
Ingredients:
Zest of 6 or 7 large fresh lemons (or 10 small fresh lemons)
1 litre or quart of pure grain alcohol or vodka
1250ml or 5 cups water
700gr or 3 cups sugar
Large glass jar (large enough to hold the peeled lemon zest and alcohol)

Directions:
Peel the zest from the lemons with a vegetable peeler and place them into a large glass jar. Add the alcohol to the jar with the lemon zest. Cover the glass jar with cellophane and store it in a cool place for seven days.

On the sixth day, boil the water and add the sugar to the boiling water. Stir the sugar until it is fully dissolved in the water. Set the sugar syrup aside to let it cool overnight.

On the seventh day, strain the lemon peels from the alcohol and discard the peels. Pour the sugar syrup into the glass jar with the alcohol and stir well. Serve chilled (from the refrigerator or freezer)!

This limoncello will keep for one to two years. Just store the limoncello in bottle(s) with a cap or cork in your bar or in the cellar. When you want to drink it chill the limoncello in the refrigerator or freezer before serving!

Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
The lemons used in this recipe must be fresh! Fresh lemon zest has a very intense taste. In addition, using just a couple of green (i.e. unripe) lemons works well in this recipe (if you are able to find them). Try to avoid the bitter white pith of the lemon skin (under the yellow zest) and get as much of the flavorful yellow zest as possible.

 

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Bring a taste of the Amalfi home with the long-anticipated cookbook from Mamma Agata, featuring all of her most treasured recipes and kitchen secrets—including her signature lemon cake.

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