A few tables over, four students stretch similarly hand-prepared dough into thin discs, slice them up into squares, place a lump of ricotta filling on each and then fold them into ravioli. Trolling between one work station and the other are instructors Carla Tessitore, the patient one, and Alessandro Spisni, the gregarious and at times intimidating younger brother of owner Alessandra.
"What do you think you are doing there?" he yells at one point. "Do you ever listen to me?" He has taken issue with how Claudia Baracchi, from Switzerland, is using the rolling pin on her dough. But he doesn't stay angry for long, and Baracchi soon gets a pat on the back and a playful "cara," or dear.
Teachers at La Vecchia Scuola do their best to cultivate a convivial atmosphere, but they are exacting. Here, the making of fresh pasta — more than a dozen varieties — is approached with precision, almost a kind of reverence. The school is a perfect fit for foodies eager to work hard for at least a few hours before sitting down to savor the fruit of their labors.
An intimate place
A more intimate atmosphere is the hallmark of Il Salotto di Penelope (Penelope's Lounge). Hidden away on the far side of a courtyard off Via San Felice, a porticoed street that connects downtown to one of the city's medieval gates, this large but charming professional kitchen has been in use for more than 50 years. The Simili sisters, two of Bologna's most famous pasta-makers who are well into their 90s, worked here until recently. Today, chatty friends Barbara Zaccagni and Valeria Hensemberger manage the place.
I visit them one weekday evening as they're teaching 17 people how to make tortellini. "The secret is stretching out the dough so thin that you can see San Luca through it," Zaccagni said. She's referring to the salmon-colored 18th-century Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, which stands guard over Bologna from high atop a hill just outside town.
A few days later, my mother and I visit the proverbial cherry on my cooking school cake: the Gelato Museum, opened last year by Carpigiani, the world's largest maker of professional gelato equipment. In the same location right outside town, Carpigiani also manages the for-profit Gelato University, catering to people who dream of opening an artisanal gelato shop.
My mom and I first take a guided tour through old artifacts and machinery with a group of Chinese high school students. Then the two of us sit down with Italy-educated Japanese teacher Makoto Irie for an hourlong gelato-making class.
Irie guides us through the rules for making a sherbet (an Arab invention from the 11th century, we learn) with fresh oranges that had come straight from the market that morning. This turns out to involve more math than I'd expected, to find the right balance between the natural sugars in the fruit and added sugars.
But we do OK in the end, and during the tasting session that follows we're pretty impressed with our soft, brightly colored final product. Though we've made the sherbet in a professional Carpigiani machine, Irie explains how to make it by hand and sends us home with amateur-appropriate instructions.
"When you hear mention of Bolognese cuisine, take a bow, for it deserves such respect," wrote Pellegrino Artusi in his 1891 cookbook, "The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well," which was the Italian housewife's bible for decades. Today this city's culinary tradition no longer has to be just an obscure object of desire. Everyone's free, even welcome, to dabble — and delight — in it.
If you go
Where to stay
Grand Hotel Majestic, Bologna's oldest and most luxurious hotel. Double rooms from $340, including breakfast. Via Indipendenza 8, grandhotelmajestic.duetorrihotels.com/en
Hotel Orologio, a charming little hotel near Bologna's central square. Double rooms from $140, including breakfast. Via IV Novembre 10, http://www.art-hotel-orologio.it/hotel_en.html
Casa Ilaria, a B&B in the centrally located university area, offering its own cooking classes and gastronomic tours of the surrounding region. Doubles from $124, including breakfast. Largo Respighi 8, casailaria.com
CIBO — Culinary Institute of Bologna, half-day, full-day and multiday individual and group classes for all skill levels. Prices start at $59 per person. Via Augusto Righi 30b, cookingclassesinbologna.com
Gelato Museum, guided tours of the museum, followed by either a basic gelato tasting or a one-hour or three-hour hands-on gelato-making class. Prices start at $6. Via Emilia 45, Anzola Emilia, gelatomuseum.com/eng
Il Salotto del Buongusto organizes a variety of cooking courses, from fresh pasta-making to gluten-free cooking to molecular gastronomy. Also offers wine-tasting and art-of-entertaining classes. All classes last about three hours and cost $51 per person, or $59 with a translation service. Piazza San Francesco 10, ilsalottodelbuongusto.it
Il Salotto di Penelope, half-day and full-day fresh pasta classes. Prices for courses in English start at $105 . Evening classes in Italian from $46. Via San Felice 116/G, http://www.ilsalottodipenelope.it
International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine: Courses in Bologna are scheduled between Sept. 15 and Oct. 20. All courses begin Sunday afternoon and last four to six days. Customized private courses also may be arranged. From $2,095 per person, including accommodation. 212-779-1921, internationalcookingschool.com
Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, the most famous fresh pasta school in Italy. It now also features pastry- and bread-making classes. From $86 per person.
Via Galliera 11, lavecchiascuola.com