Eating with the AU: La Cucina di Sandra - Richmond (Melbourne)

Though life may be frantic, Italians always find great pleasure in sitting around a table at home and sharing a good meal together. Food is one of the cornerstones of Italian culture, so it is no secret that la cucina (the kitchen) is the heart of the home. With quintessentially bold flavours, Italian food is about the celebration of quality produce and traditional cuisine in all of its regional varieties. For Melbournian foodies interested in exploring the art of Italian cooking, head towards Richmond where you will find a little slice of Italy tucked away in a Tuscan-style warehouse building that is home to Sandra del Greco and her stylish cooking school, La Cucina di Sandra.

Hailing from the seaside province of Pescara, Abruzzo, Sandra grew up spending countless hours in her Zia’s kitchen in Italy. She then embarked on a successful corporate career, before handing over the reins to indulge in her passion for regional Italian cooking. Having collected hundreds of recipes from Italian friends and family, Sandra opened La Cucina di Sandra in August 2014, thereby turning a lifelong dream into reality. Her cooking school has been extremely popular amongst Melbournians, with each class providing a unique and rewarding foodie experience.

Italians love to forage for mushrooms and with winter being in the midst of prime fungi season, we decided to participate in La Cucina di Sandra’s ‘Passion for Mushrooms’ class. Mushrooms are an intrinsic part of Italian cuisine, providing a touch of luxury and ultimate savouriness to dishes on cooler days. They have a deep flavour and wonderful texture, creating satisfaction without being heavy. It was only fitting then that Sandra utilised a variety of fresh, frozen and reconstituted dry fungi to demonstrate her creativity and to provide us with a luscious three course mushroom feast.

We arrived to a plate of moreish biscotti al Parmigiano (Parmesan biscuits) that were passed around as we made our introductions with the other guests. Incorporating simple ingredients including butter, flour, Parmesan cheese and egg, these biscotti were the perfect finger-food accompaniment to a glass of red wine before dinner.

Sandra then eased us into our first recipe – il fungo si incontra con il prosciutto (mushrooms with prosciutto). Featuring sautéed champignon mushrooms stuffed with a ricotta cream mixture and topped with crispy prosciutto, this entrée was simple to make and best of all, absolutely scrumptious. Savoury, earthy and slightly salty, the mushrooms were both meaty and bursting with flavour. It was certainly a recipe that we could picture ourselves making for our next gathering with family and friends.

No Italian meal is complete without pasta and our mouths were watering in anticipation of these popular starches, which are used in Italian cuisine as a vehicle for other flavours. Sandra gave us a run-down of different shapes and types, with chuckles all around as she revealed her numerous unsuspected locations for storing this staple. We learnt that when preparing Italian cuisine at home, it is worthwhile to spring for the best pasta that you can afford, which therefore maintains the integrity and quality of your dish. We then began the pasta alla boscaiola (pasta in the lumberjack manner) – a traditional Umbrian dish that is usually cooked in winter, when there are lots of mushrooms available.

For her recipe, Sandra utilised a mixture of shitake, king brown, Swiss brown and enoki mushrooms, as well as frozen and dry reconstituted porcini from South Australia. Leftover water from the dry porcini was then mixed with white wine to create a clean, full-bodied stock. Italian sausage was crumbled into a pot with the stock and stirred until the mixture reduced to a thick sauce. Meanwhile, the pasta was cooked separately until ‘al dente’, after which it was added to the sauce and served immediately with lots of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. The result was a simple pasta dish that truly brought the flavours of Italy to the table.

The main for the evening was pollo, prosciutto e radicchio rosso con i funghi trifolati (rolled chicken breast with prosciutto, radicchio & pan fried mushrooms). For this dish, the mushrooms included champignons, Swiss brown, pine, shitake and shimeji varieties, as well as reconstituted dry porcini, pan fried in butter and garlic to perfection. Sandra took us through the technique for cleaning and flattening each chicken breast, before laying prosciutto on each fillet with a generous amount of mushroom and Parmesan mixture. Each chicken fillet was then rolled tightly and tied with kitchen string, before being browned in a frying pan and transferred to an oven to bake. To serve, the chicken was sliced and plated with a salad of radicchio tossed in extra virgin olive oil, as well as a generous helping of mushrooms on the side. The chicken was tender and wonderfully complemented by the creamy mixture it enclosed. Each mouthful epitomised the heartiness and true pleasure of Italian home cooking.

Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore, Sandra took us through her recipe for budini di ricotta alle amarene sciroppate (ricotta puddings with preserved cherries). These heavenly puddings were served warm straight from the oven, drizzled with melted honey mixed with cherry juice and topped with luscious cherries. The silky ricotta was lifted by a hint of vanilla; the cherries were sweet and slightly tart, making this texturally outstanding dessert truly divine.

As the evening drew to a close, we were in agreement that La Cucina di Sandra is a welcoming cooking and eating experience that will draw you in and leave you desiring more. This is a cooking school that not only celebrates the heritage and authenticity of Italian food but also teaches you the art of enjoying life the Italian way. Sandra’s passion for Italian food brings her guests together in a fashion that only Italians know how. With each guest receiving a full set of printed recipes and extensive tips throughout the class, there is no excuse for not being able to successfully cook the same delicious dishes at home. Once those dishes are perfected, you may even find yourself keen to book in on one of Sandra’s other classes to learn new techniques... and pretty soon, you’ll have a slew of delicious meals up your sleeve to impress friends and family at your next dinner party.

La Cucina di Sandra

Address: 62 Lyndhurst Street, Richmond, VIC 3121
Contact: 0419 503 805 or (03) 9421 1883

Photos by Serena Ho for the AU Review