We leave our apartment and walk past the Piazza della Signoria. Past the Duomo. Past gelato shops and leather shops and glass shops in buildings so old that they're literally medieval — until we reach Michele.
Michele (pronounced with a hard 'k') is waiting outside a windowed shop front. "You are here for class?" he asks.
We are here — in Italy, in Florence, on this cobblestone street in front of Michele's temporary kitchen — for class.
To be clear, we didn't travel to Italy for this class. We traveled to Italy because my mom, in her retirement, wants to see more of the world. And she's slowly and generously taking my sisters and I along for the ride.
Two years ago, we joined her for London and Paris. This year, it's Italy, with stays in Rome, Florence and Venice. And, on this day, it's a pasta cooking class with an Italian chef who's opening his own restaurant this fall.
I KNOW. It's ridiculous luck and don't think for a minute that point is lost on me.
The narrow space holds a few chairs against one wall, a long wooden high-rise table down the center, and a counter with a stovetop in the back. Michele directs us to wash our hands, and we begin.
Our teacher chef opens the lid on a pan on the stovetop and points to the contents. "Do you know what this is?" he asks.
"Rabbit?" aks one of our two classmates.
"Yes," he says. "This part you watch, the rest you do yourselves."
Michele cuts carrots, celery and onion to add to the pan, then pours in what appears to be an entire bottle of wine. "We'll let that sit," he says, walking around to the wooden table. "Now, pasta."
We take our places around the table, and Michele directs us to portion out our flour. He has us make a hole in the center of our flour mound, then tells us to crack two eggs into the center. Gradually, we mix the flour into the egg until it's dough.
He teaches us how to knead our dough, explaining that it will grow yellower as the egg yolks blend in better. My hands grow increasingly tired and sore until, what feels like a day later, Michele assesses my pasta dough and tells me it's ready.
We wrap our dough to avoid drying as Michele instructs us in making a ricotta filling. "A tablespoon of olive oil," he says, pouring what looks like no fewer than three tablespoons of olive oil into his bowl. Then lemon zest. Fresh ground pepper. Water. Salt. There are no measuring spoons. It's all by eye. Or, actually, taste.
"How do you know how much to add?" someone asks.
"Taste it," he says. "Does it need more pepper? More lemon? That's how you know."
We set our mixture aside and return to the dough. Michele instructs us to tear off a portion and to roll it "very thin."
For the next hour, we make ravioli, tortellini, farfalle, fettucine, and more —pinching, cutting, rolling, stuffing, trimming — until we all have dozens of pieces of pasta before us.
Then it's time for the sauces. And also for the wine. Michele pours us generous glasses of red to sip while he teaches us to make the sauces that will accompany our pastas.
We gather around the stovetop as Michele says, "We start with just a little bit of butter" — and then throws a full stick of butter in the pan. He adds sage leaves and garlic, fresh-ground pepper. As it heats, he adds pasta to a pot of boiling water. A minute later, he ladles some of that water in our sauce pan, grates in parmesan.
He adds the pasta to the sauce. ("You never put the sauce on top," he says. "You always mix it in.") And then there it is, in front of me, in a bowl. I literally groan when I take my first bite.
"Yes?" he says, looking up. "You like?"
"I like," I say. Which is an understatement. It's the best pasta I've ever eaten.
He refills our wine glasses. Says, "Now another!"
My sister Amy helps with a truffle sauce. I'm called up to help with a Gorgonzola sauce. And then, when we're certain we can't eat another bite, he mixes our fettuccine with the rabbit sauce.
And we eat another bite.
When it comes time to bid a grateful farewell, I tell him, 'Michele, "I'm not going to be able to eat for three days."
Or at least not until that evening, when we go out … for pasta.