Cooking with Silvestro
Imagine waking up in a 16th-century palazzo in southern Italy, knowing you’ll spend your day learning to cook traditional dishes from fresh ingredients you’ll find during your stroll through the local market, and later enjoy the meal you’ve prepared, paired with wine from grapes grown in the same region.
It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie, but at The Awaiting Table cooking school, it’s a daily occurrence.
For owner Silvestro Silvestori ’99, cooking is directly connected to culture. His 8-year-old school in Lecce immerses visitors in this philosophy, centered on the local Pugliese cuisine. It has been named one of Italy’s top cooking schools by Food & Wine magazine, and has been profiled in Bon Appétit and the Los Angeles Times.
According to Silvestori, “the New World does a poor job of teaching eaters to think holistically about food and wine.” He believes they “talk about recipes when really they want lifestyle. They talk about pairings, as if any wine could go with any dish, rather than looking to a local wine with a local dish, the two having developed in tandem. What I really teach are these relationships,” he says. “Or put another way, there is nothing ironic in the fact that the fava beans growing between the local vines to replenish nitrogen in the soil also happen to make up the dishes that best accompany that same wine.”
Before opening The Awaiting Table, Silvestori worked as a baker, wedding-cake decorator, butcher, waiter and high school teacher. “My heart was never really in any of it,” he says. “As a schoolteacher, I spent all my free time learning Emilian pasta techniques from my upstairs neighbor.”
Silvestori—who writes regularly for Wine & Spirits magazine, and whose writing and photographs have been featured in multiple international publications—is also a nationally certified sommelier. In October, his school is launching Terronia, a regional wine program. Each spring, he bikes through Southern Italy, researching indigenous grapes and the wines historically made from them, and promoting these traditionally underappreciated wines through his blog. “These grapes have been in these places for 2,000, 2,500 years,” he says. The wines, he adds “keep me awake at night, reading and reading. And they keep my overloaded bicycle always moving forward.”
Silvestori has extensive roots in the Puglia region, located on the Salentine Peninsula, the heel to Italy’s boot. His great-grandparents were born here, and he chose Lecce because of that. Besides instructing visiting students, he also teaches local children how to cook. “I love feeling that I’m playing a part in a continuum,” he says. “I’m not just the Vanna White of Italian food, posing in front of it, taking credit by association.”
Above all, he savors living in a place “where walking down the street involves 15 conversations with 12 different people. I love that my fishmonger really looks out for me. That my wine vendors set aside interesting wines for me, that all of my friends are wine or olive oil producers. In Lecce, food and wine are not just things I do two or three times a day.”