La cucina povera. Often translated as “the food of the poor,” the term seems unlikely to make mouths water or inspire serious foodies to blow their vacation budget on a cooking course. But in and around the city of Lecce, deep in Italy’s heel, a crop of culinary schools and solo cooking teachers is encouraging travelers to embrace this traditionally marginalized food and to master the recipes of the extremely humble (and remarkably resourceful) local fare, which lies far at the other end of the culinary spectrum from haute cuisine. Prepared with local produce, sundry leftovers and pastas, these unembellished peasant and working-class dishes are taking center stage. As a result, Lecce, long cherished for its beautifully chiseled Baroque and Renaissance churches, is now drawing food-obsessed travelers, including some noted chefs and restaurateurs, eager to transform fava beans, turnip greens, broccoli rabe, chickpeas and bread crumbs into unexpectedly flavorful dishes. “The former aristocracy demanded that the poor workers hand over the lion’s share of their toil,” said Silvestro Silvestori, who in 2003 founded the Awaiting Table Cookery School in Lecce, a pioneering program that has imparted the secrets of boiled chicory, pickled hyacinth bulbs and other local bounty to more than 2,000 guests who have attended its weeklong cooking courses. “What the wealthy didn’t care about were the legumes and weeds, and that’s where our kitchen begins.”
“Over generations this human ingenuity began to take shape, so that really good things could be made from the humblest ingredients,” said Mr. Silvestori, an Italian-American from Michigan whose grandmother hailed from Lecce. “I’d liken ‘la cucina povera’ to ‘soul food,’ as the genesis for both was the profound necessity of the neglected and subjugated.”
Though the cooking schools and classes vary in duration from a few hours to several days and occupy structures ranging from simple apartment kitchens to extravagant palazzos, many programs blend similar ingredients: an easygoing family-like atmosphere; visits to local markets; convivial group meals; wine and olive oil tastings; and instruction in English.
The founders’ backgrounds overlap too. Nearly all of them gave up careers in fields like education, business, finance and media to follow their passion for local cooking. (Mr. Silvestori taught high school in Bologna before creating his school.) Many of the classes are led by women, underscoring the centrality of women’s ingenuity over the centuries in developing Puglia’s brand of cucina povera.
“Thanks to women going to the market, cultivating the products and cooking the food in a certain way, they have transmitted the culture,” said Cinzia Rascazzo, founder of a Lecce cooking and food-tour outfit called Stile Mediterraneo.
If you book classes at Alle Due Corti restaurant, you’ll spend three days led by the head chef Rosalba Da Carlo. Squeeze into the apartment kitchen of Il Gusto del Tacco (The Taste of the Heel) and you’ll be working alongside the cookbook author Anna Maria Chirone Arnò as you whip up dishes like puréed broad beans with fried bread and green peppers. Even Mr. Silvestori points out his debt to the opposite sex. “I picked up the habit of cooking with older women here in the Salento,” he said, referring to the region of Puglia that contains Lecce. The area, he added, “is where I developed my personal style as a cook. I’m a 43 year-old heterosexual college-educated male but I cook like an older provincial woman.”
COOK IN PUGLIA To try your hand at cucina povera you can enroll with Cook in Puglia, which exclusively employs women around the region to lead its classes and demonstrations in local styles.
“We are doing something that our grandmothers taught us — making great recipes and inventing recipes with a few healthy ingredients,” said Ylenia Sambati, who in 2010 created Cook in Puglia and began recruiting its network of teachers — including her own mom. “Our cooking classes have an ancestral meaning. The hearth. The olive grove. For these sacred acts we need old ladies.”
On a fragrant April morning, Ms. Sambati milled about the beamed kitchen of an old stone farmhouse just outside Lecce that serves as Cook in Puglia’s base, chatting and joking in Italian with “Mama Giulia,” one of the roughly dozen local “old ladies” who provide the cooking demonstrations (often with Ms. Sambati translating into English). Outside, a pale sun warmed lushly planted grounds dotted with stone amphorae, a swimming pool, a vegetable garden and two peacocks.
A short bespectacled woman in her 50s, Mama Giulia spread out a pile of semolina and tossed in burned wheat, fresh yeast, warm water and dashes of olive oil. It would soon be rolled by hand into bread dough, one of the more familiar dishes in the program’s repertory, which also includes potato focaccia and faux meatballs made from eggplant, breadcrumbs, egg, cheese and spelt.
“No two mothers make things the same way,” said Ms. Sambati, who learned to cook from her grandmother. She added, “We don’t cook in restaurant kitchens because we find them cold and boring. We always cook in family kitchens. Then after, we have lunch with the family.”
COOKING EXPERIENCE Gianna Greco, co-founder of Cooking Experience, also parlays the tutelage of her grandmother into dynamic cooking classes, which unfold in a former 17th-century monastery tucked in Lecce’s historical core.
That same week in April, Ms. Greco was holding forth in the vaulted underground kitchen to a trio of Australian women. Fresh from the local produce market, the group began dicing and mixing the ingredients for the afternoon’s menu, which would include ear-shaped orecchiette pasta (a local ingredient that makes an appearance in practically every Lecce cooking class) with turnip tops, artichoke parmigiana and a pasticciotto dessert pastry.
Thanks to a previous career doing technical troubleshooting in a call center, Ms. Greco looked at ease as she darted around the kitchen island and vociferously dispensed recipe instructions (“Remove the small seed in the center of a garlic clove to make the garlic lighter and easier to digest!”) while serving up wise nuggets (“A dull knife is much more dangerous than a sharp knife!”) in English and Italian.
Translation frequently fell to Ms. Greco’s co-founder and sous-chef, John Duggan, a transplanted Californian. These days, Mr. Duggan — whose scruffy beard, black bandanna and Falstaffian manner suggest a foodie buccaneer — works as a decorative painter when he’s not in the kitchen. His humorous translations, gentle teasing and sometimes bawdy commentary spice up sessions at Cooking Experience, which the two friends opened in 2010. “Everyone put on your ridiculous mushroom hats!” he bellows at the beginning of the lesson. The pause for an olive oil tasting is accompanied by chants of “Chug! Chug! Chug!” And when he decides that the time is ripe for Ms. Greco to uncork some local wine, he offers unsubtle hints by making loud coughing noises and claiming his throat is parched. Mr. Duggan explained why he and Ms. Greco avoid calling their program a school. “School means homework,” he said. “School means being punished and staying after school and being graded. We have nothing to do with that.” Like Ms. Sambati of Cook In Puglia, he stressed the coziness of the Cooking Experience concept. “We’re striving to make people feel at home, part of our family. Very often our kids will come over and have lunch with everyone. We are trying to create this very family-based experience.”
STILE MEDITERRANEO Another dynamic duo runs Stile Mediterraneo, which was founded when Ms. Rascazzo, a Harvard M.B.A. who worked for Goldman Sachs in New York and London, quit investment banking several years ago to “do something to help my region,” as she put it one afternoon while showing off the centuries-old palazzo that serves as headquarters.
The business is another fully familial affair. Ms. Rascazzo’s sister, Marika, a cardiologist, is her partner and sometime co-teacher. The palazzo, situated amid olive groves and vineyards just outside Lecce, belonged to their grandfather. Their grandmother taught them to cook.
“When I was living abroad I always noticed that only Tuscany and Northern Italian regions were getting all of the attention,” Ms. Rascazzo said. “Nobody knew about Puglia or our way of eating, or our wines, or our producers. It was just Mafia, pizza, spaghetti — the usual things associated with the south.”
Missing her home region and eager to raise the profile of its food, Ms. Rascazzo, 40, moved back to Lecce, sunk her savings into restoring the family palazzo and in 2007 started Stile Mediterraneo. Today she conducts food tours, leads visits to local producers and oversees cooking classes, where guests learn to make orecchiette, sweet-and-sour bell peppers, cakes with ricotta cheese and much besides. She is frequently joined by her sister, who draws on her medical background to impart scientific and nutritional details about the dishes. (Tip: Don’t peel tomatoes when making sauce; the skin contains lycopene, an antioxidant.)
Dr. Rascazzo’s recipes and information come together in her English ebook, “The Cuisine of Southern Italian Women: Mediterranean Secrets for a Healthy and Happy Life.”
Meanwhile, the sisters’ quest to bring attention to the region’s food — and the centrality of women in carrying on culinary traditions — has received some helpful boosts in recent years.
Last year Unesco awarded the Mediterranean diet — of which cucina povera is very much a part — status as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The organization even singled out its matriarchal debt. “Women play a particularly vital role in the transmission of expertise,” says the Unesco website, “and the safeguarding of techniques.”
International food cognoscenti have also been dropping in. A team from the Culinary Institute of America has visited Stile Mediterraneo, and chefs and restaurateurs from as far away as New England, Montreal and Rio have taken courses. Mike Chiarello, the head chef of La Bottega restaurant in Napa Valley and a sometime Food Network host, is one of them.
“I thought I was treating my daughter, recently enrolled at C.I.A., to a cooking class with Cinzia and her sister at Stile Mediterraneo and that I would simply be accompanying her to learn things I already knew,” Mr. Chiarello wrote via email. “Instead, I came out of the class with a handful of new techniques and knowledge of how to make the perfect simple tomato sauce.”