Here’s How to Cook Like an Italian
Try these easy recipes — from expert Airbnb Experience hosts — for fresh pasta, Bolognese from scratch, and more.
Photographs by Rahel Weiss
Alright, so you can’t jet to Rome tonight, and you don’t have an Italian nonna to cook cherished family dishes for you? Well, we have the next best thing: a suite of easy-to-follow recipes from Italian Airbnb Experience hosts that’ll have you tucking into a plate of homemade pasta and fresh sauce in no time. ¡Buon appetito!
Luca Brozzi and Lorenzo Manfrini: Cooking Class in the Chianti Hills, Florence
Burned out by their jobs in the fashion industry, Luca Brozzi and Lorenzo Manfrini quit and became Airbnb Experience hosts — but the couple has never tired of pasta-making, a hobby each has had since their grandmothers first taught them as kids.“I would see my granny making different shapes, and it was like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat,” says Manfrini. The best results come from kneading the dough “until you have a smooth consistency, like a baby’s bottom,” he notes. A happy demeanor is also key: “If you have bad energy when you make the dough, the pasta will not be good, so we always start off with a glass of wine and make sure our guests are relaxed.”
Serves: 2 to 4
1 cup Italian “00” flour (or all-purpose flour), plus more for kneading
2/3 cup semolina flour
2 large eggs
Large cutting board or clean kitchen counter
Bench scraper (also known as a bench knife, board scraper, or dough cutter)
Pasta machine (optional) or rolling pin
If the dough becomes too stiff to knead, moisten your hands with water and return to kneading. (Repeat as needed.)
1. Put the flours on a cutting board or clean kitchen counter and mix them together. Set aside about three tablespoons on the corner of the work surface.
2. Mold remaining flour mixture into the shape of a volcano, making a hole in the center with a fork. Crack the eggs into the hole and slowly beat them with the fork, gradually incorporating the flour from the sides of the volcano until you reach a consistency that can be worked by hand. (It will be shaggy to start.) Set aside.
3. Using the bench scraper, clean your work surface by scraping up the dough stuck to the board. Set the dough scrapings aside.
4. Sprinkle a little of the reserved flour on the cleaned work surface. Place your dough on the cutting board, flatten a little bit, and then place the dough scrapings in the center. Knead the scrapings into the main ball of dough and continue kneading for at least 10 minutes, adding flour from the reserved pile a little bit at a time if the dough is too sticky. Stop kneading when the dough reaches a smooth, even consistency throughout.
5. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Clean and lightly flour your work surface again.
6. After the dough has rested, knead it again for a few seconds. At this point, the dough can be rolled to the thinness that is required for whatever recipe you are going to make (spaghetti alla chitarra, ravioli, lasagna, etc.), either using a pasta machine or by hand. After cutting the pasta, dust generously with more flour to prevent sticking.
Keep in mind: Fresh pasta cooks much faster than dried pasta. Depending on how it is rolled or cut, it will generally cook within 2–3 minutes.
Chiara Nicolanti and Nerina Tamanti: Handmade Pasta with Grandma, Palombara Sabina
“Everybody thinks Italian recipes are all made of garlic, but that’s not true,” says Chiara Nicolanti, a former actress who now hosts a cooking Airbnb Experience with her 84-year-old grandmother, Nerina Tamanti (a.k.a. Nonna Nerina), in a small village outside Rome. “We don’t use garlic in our tomato sauce because it doesn’t need it. The Italian taste is to not put so many ingredients in food; just the freshest you can find, and that’s it.” Some cooks add water, but their decades-old family recipe, which was handed down from Nonna’s grandmother, omits it. “That’s because the tomatoes themselves have water inside,” says Nicolanti. “Without the added water, the consistency of our sauce is a little thick, like a juice, and you can really taste the vegetables.”
“At first I just wanted to show how my grandma makes pasta. But I saw the most important thing was her. The connection. People cry when they leave.” — Chiara Nicolanti
Classic Tomato Sauce
4 cups fresh San Marzano or good-quality Roma tomatoes, chopped in big pieces, or substitute one 28-oz. can San Marzano tomatoes, drained
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped (1 cup)
2 celery stalks, chopped (¾ cup)
5 large basil leaves
1 medium red onion, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Mix all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Then lower the heat to a simmer.
2. Cook until the tomatoes have liquefied, the vegetables are tender, and the juices have thickened, about 1 hour.
3. Taste and season with salt as needed.
Luca Rizzetto: The Best Pesto Xperience Cinqueterre, Riomaggiore
While pesto is delicious tossed with all types of pasta, notes Rizzetto, he typically serves his on testaroli, a regional crepe-like pasta cut into large diamond shapes.
Leave it to a trained architect turned restaurateur to know how to construct the perfect pesto — and demo the process flawlessly. “It doesn’t get any more authentic than this,” one of the guests of Luca Rizzetto’s Airbnb Experience wrote in a recent review. “Not only does Luca teach you the specifics…he shares the history that comes with this delicious sauce.” Rizzetto’s family recipe for the basil-based mixture is flexible — “Instead of pine nuts you can use walnuts, and you can add pecorino to the Parmigiano,” he explains — but one thing he considers pretty much mandatory is the method: hand-crushing the ingredients with a mortar and pestle. (His is a marble one that belonged to his grandmother.) “With an immersion blender, you are only chopping everything. If you use the mortar, you’re smashing it all and releasing essential oils, so in the end, you have an explosion of flavors.”
Pesto alla genovese
1 medium clove garlic
1 tbsp. pine nuts
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
2 tbsp. aged pecorino cheese, finely grated
Extra-virgin olive oil
Mortar and pestle
1. Peel the garlic, split it in half in the middle to remove the sprout, and chop into chunks.
2. Add garlic and a generous pinch of salt to the mortar and start crushing, twisting and pressing to reduce it to a mush.
3. Add pine nuts, and then add the basil little by little, while continuing to crush. When all the leaves are in, start to grind them with a round movement until the mixture resembles a smooth cream.
4. Combine the cheeses and add to the mortar a few tablespoons at a time, mixing until incorporated. Drizzle in olive oil and stir until smooth.
Lucrezia Cannito: Opera in the Kitchen, Florence
The main ingredient may be meat, but Lucrezia Cannito’s rustic sauce gets its deep flavor from some fastidious attention to the supporting ingredients. “I like to cut the carrots, onion, and celery into small cubes,” says the Airbnb Experience host, who has guests pick their own in her garden overlooking the Tuscan countryside. Cooked with the ground beef and pork “over the lowest flame possible for three hours, the meat becomes tender and the sauce gets glossy,” Cannito says. Trained as a sommelier, she also adds a glass of red wine (ideally one that’s a little acidic but not too bitter, like a Chianti) to every batch of Bolognese before the simmering: “The wine adds some sugar and caramelizes the meat.”
Hearty Bolognese Sauce
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
½ medium red onion, peeled and finely diced (1/3 cup)
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced (1/3 cup)
1 medium rib of celery, finely diced (1/3 cup)
8 oz. ground beef
9 oz. ground pork
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. dry Italian red wine (such as Chianti or Montepulciano)
2–3 tbsp. fresh aromatic herbs, such as sage and rosemary
4¼ cups tomato puree or sauce
1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the vegetables.
2. Mix a little and sauté about 5 minutes, until the onions are translucent but not yet browned. Stir in the beef and pork and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned, about 10 minutes more.
3. Stir in the wine and cook until the liquid has evaporated, 10 minutes more.
4. Add herbs and cook 3 minutes. Then add tomato puree or sauce and a pinch of salt and pepper.
5. Reduce heat to very low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 3 hours.
6. Taste the Bolognese and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. For a thicker sauce, continue reducing on high heat 15 minutes more.
Emanuele Faini: Professional Lab Pasta Experience, Rome
Many Americans think there should be cream in a carbonara sauce, but this authentic version doesn’t have a trace of it. “I did some research and found this very old Roman way of making carbonara, and it’s simple,” says Airbnb Experience host Emanuele Faini, who owns a pastificio (fresh pasta factory). “You cook pancetta in a little bit of oil, fold in just-boiled pasta, cook for a few minutes, and then take the pan off the flame. When the temperature goes down a little, you add the mixture of egg, pecorino and Parmigiano, salt, and pepper, and then stir. It becomes creamy by itself from the egg.” Carbonara is best served with rigatoni or spaghetti, according to Faini — and with a little flourish at the end. “There’s a secret I do: When I fry the pancetta, I take three or four pieces out, and then I put those on top of the pasta right before serving,” he says. “You get two different textures on the plate — the pancetta in the sauce is very soft, and the pieces on top are crunchy.”
Classic Carbonara Sauce
12¾ oz. spaghetti
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
6 oz. pancetta, cut into ¼-inch cubes (1 cup)
2/3 cup pecorino cheese, finely grated, plus more for topping
2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
2 large eggs
¼ tsp. black pepper, plus more for topping
1. In a large pot, cook the spaghetti in salted water until softened but still undercooked, about 5 minutes.
2. Drain, reserving 1½ cups of the cooking liquid, and set the pasta and pasta water by the stove.
3. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the oil and pancetta and cook until the pancetta is crispy and browned, 6–8 minutes.
4. Add the spaghetti and reserved cooking liquid to the skillet, stir well, and continue cooking until the pasta is nearly finished, 4–5 minutes more.
5. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the pecorino, Parmigiano, and eggs. Season with salt and black pepper.
6. When the spaghetti is cooked, remove from heat and let the pan cool for 1 minute before stirring in the cheese and egg mixture. (The remaining heat from the pan will cook the eggs and thicken them into a silky sauce.)
7. Scoop the pasta into bowls, top with additional pecorino and black pepper, and serve warm.
Paola Gioia: Cannoli Making Class, Palermo
At a 200-year-old farm in Mondello, Airbnb Experience host Paola Gioia gives guests a crash course in cannoli making and the secrets of Sicilian pastries. “From the age of five I would watch my grandmother making cassata and every type of cake along with cannoli,” she says. What makes Gioia’s version even sweeter: Her recipe is similar to the one used by the cloistered nuns in Caltanissetta, who are credited with preserving the very first cannoli recipes, she says. Her secret weapon for molding and cooking the dough is an old-school bamboo tube; the more common metal versions are more prone to burning or uneven cooking, she says. And guests can tell the difference. “I can honestly say these were the best cannoli I’ve had in my life,” one recently raved. Cannoli success also comes down to timing. “If you have people over, always fill the pastries a few minutes before serving,” Gioia says. “A good cannolo has a shell that’s not soft, but crunchy.”
Cannoli from Scratch
Makes 20 cannoli
1¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. unprocessed cocoa powder
3 tbsp. strutto or olive oil
1 large egg (for dough), plus one egg, beaten, for sealing shells
1 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. marsala or zibibbo
1 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. white wine vinegar
Strutto or sunflower oil for deep-frying
3 cups sheep’s milk ricotta (Place in a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl in the fridge overnight — at least 6 and up to 10 hours — to drain. Then scoop out 2 cups of the strained ricotta, reserving the rest for another use.)
1¾–2 cups powdered sugar, to taste
¼ cup miniature chocolate chips or candied fruit
¾-inch cannoli molds
1. To make the shell dough, in a large bowl, add the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt and stir with a fork to combine.
2. Add the strutto or olive oil, one egg, marsala, and white wine vinegar and continue mixing until a shaggy dough comes together.
3. Lightly flour a clean work surface, turn the dough out onto it, and knead until the dough is smooth and stiff, 8–10 minutes.
4. Cover the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
5. Start running the dough through a pasta machine on the thickest setting and continue passing it through the next settings until you reach the thinnest setting, lightly dusting it with more flour as needed to prevent sticking.
6. Cut the dough into 4-inch circles and wrap each around ¾-inch metal cannoli molds, lightly brushing the overlap with some of the remaining beaten egg and pressing gently to seal.
7. Line a large baking sheet or heat-resistant platter with paper towels and set it by the stove. In a large pot fitted with a deep-fry thermometer, add the strutto or sunflower oil to a depth of 2½ inches and heat to 320°F. Without crowding the pan, fry the shells until crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes.
8. While the shells are cooking, make the filling (see below).
9. Transfer the cooked shells to the lined baking sheet to cool. Cool completely before removing the cannoli molds from the shells.
10. Just before serving, pipe the filling into the shells. Garnish the ends with additional chocolate chips or candied fruit and serve immediately.
Instructions for filling
Use a spoon or rubber spatula to fold the powdered sugar into the cheese until smooth. Fold in the chocolate chips. Transfer the filling to a piping bag or a heavy-duty zip-top bag with one bottom corner cut off.