Learning to Cook in Italy
Written by
Debbie Peck
Posted In

Don’t you love the smell of freshly baked bread coming out of the oven? And what about the wonderful aroma of crushed, fresh basil when you make pesto? In the middle of winter is enough to bring back memories of a warm and pleasant summer day! Have you tasted fresh pasta rolled out just minutes before your meal? At Rome with Purpose, students can smell and taste all these dishes and more during our weekly cooking classes. Why do we offer cooking classes?Because we’re in Italy! And Italians are very food-centric, to say the least.

Some students come never having never chopped an onion, or minced garlic. And most of them can’t wait to learn how! One of our goals is to give students the opportunity to have hands-on learning, using easy-to-follow recipes—which you can see at Recipes.RomeWithPurpose.com. I love it when the alumni write to me after they return to the States to tell me they’re making dishes for their friends and family! For instance, Sarah (Spring 2018)wrote:


Thank you, Debbie, for teaching me how to make pasta! I’m passing on what I learned to my little brother and he is eternally grateful to you. And I quote, “Wow! I can’t believe we made pasta with just flour and eggs! This is the best stuff I’ve ever tasted!!”


Or Grace (Spring 2017) who wrote to say:

“I’ve been missing you guys and Rome so much! I keep making all the recipes!”

To experience the making, the tasting, the perfecting of our recipes, you’ll have to join us for cooking classes at Rome with Purpose. But let me share a simple recipe for Basil Pesto that you can make at home—and you’ll probably be surprised at how much better it tastes than store-bought pesto! Pesto is one of my very favorite Italian foods! If you aren't familiar with it, it is a delightful, vibrant sauce most often used to coat pasta--and there's nothing quite like enjoying it on fresh pasta!


Pesto, which originated in Genoa,Italy, comes from the Italian word pestare that means to pound or to bruise. This is because originally pesto was made ina granite mortar and pestle. However, most people don’t have a mortar and pestle large enough to make a batch of pesto in their kitchen, so most cooks now use a food processor. (You can use a blender or Vitamix if you don’t have a food processor, but you’ll need to use more oil than you would need to in a processor.)

First you’ll need to collect the ingredients—this is enough for 4-6servings, though you can enjoy some today and keep the remainder in the fridge or freezer until later:  

- 1 & 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, picked from the stems, washed and patted dry with a paper towel, then packed lightly into a measuring cup.  These can come from a plant in your yard if you live in a warm climate or purchase a package of fresh basil leaves or a basil plant at a grocery store.

- 1/4 cup walnuts— most recipes call for pine nuts but having harvested and shelled a few pine nuts while in Italy, I understand why they're so costly--they are a lot of work to extract from the pinecones! I just can't bring myself to spend the money on them in a recipe like this, where they're all ground up and the flavor is so similar to walnuts

- 2 medium-sized cloves fresh garlic (not the minced stuff in a jar, please)

- 3/4 cup fresh gratedParmesan cheese, please don’t use the “fake” stuff in the green can

- 1/3 - 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil—one of my favorite brands is Pompeiian SMOOTH as it isn’t too sharp


Now, pull out your trusty food processor and toss in the basil leaves, walnuts, garlic, and Parmesan cheese—and turn on the processor. Once these ingredients are finely ground, drizzle 1/3 cup of olive oil through the feed tube of your processor until the mixture is very smooth. If you are using a blender, you may need to add a bit more oil since the blades are deeper down in the blender. We won’t add salt because our pasta is cooked in salted water—salty enough to taste like the ocean is my rule of thumb.

To serve the pesto, use a spatula to scrape it from the processor into a serving bowl. Bring a large pot of salted water (remember, it should taste like the ocean) to a boil and cook the pasta according to the directions on the box until al dente (still a bit firm). Scoop out a little of the pasta water (in a mug or cup) before draining the pasta. Now add a tablespoon or two of the pasta water to the pesto to thin it out before tossing in the drained pasta, stirring it until well-coated with the pesto. My Italian friends taught me to thin out the pesto before trying to coat the pasta with it—which really helps it to coat the pasta better! But don’t make the mistake of adding too much liquid and thinning out the pesto too much. So just add a tablespoon at a time—you can always add a bit more after it’s coated the pasta if it seems too dry.

And there you have it! The best Basil Pesto you’ll probably ever eat!I’d love to show you how to make fresh pasta too—but as Alton Brown from GoodEats would say, “That’s another show.” So you’ll have to join me at Rome withPurpose for that.


Debbie Peck grew up in Burkina Faso, West Africa where she learned to cook from scratch from her mom. When she married Larry in 1979, his Italian mother began the process of teaching her to make many Italian dishes. Debbie and her husband are the directors of Rome with Purpose, L&LI’s European campus.