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To Italy and Back

I’ve stepped out over my lunch hour to try an Italian cooking class—admittedly a nice interruption to office monotony—but for the moment, reheating leftover soup in the office kitchen seems more appealing. Snow crusts the road as I drive across downtown Des Moines to the East Village. Not fresh, damp postcard snow, but the dry kind that catches in sidewalk cracks—blown through concrete canyons by unrelenting January wind. My scrawled directions lead me to a nondescript storefront, and I park, reluctant to leave the cocoon of my car. But then, from the car, I spot a promising sign. The store’s windows are all steamed up; someone is cooking something inside.

Pushing open the door, I find Alessandra Meschini chatting with three other women, my classmates. With dark curly hair and a fabulously thick accent (with cinematically exaggerated gestures and self-deprecating humor to match), Alessandra warmly greets me and slips back to the kitchen. She emerges with a thin, perfectly golden and tomato-glazed pizza, and cuts us all pieces with scissors. At first, I’m puzzled. Wasn’t this a cannelloni class? But then I realize—the pizza is just her way of saying “Welcome.”

Cooking with Alessandra, as the school is called, feels a bit like stepping into the cucina with a cool Italian cousin you never knew you had. She cooks and talks, you listen and learn, and the espresso flows freely. Alessandra opens up the first floor of her loft for several morning and evening cooking classes each week. It's not a professional kitchen by any means, but she’s decorated the space with two big farmhouse-style tables, attractive posters and maps so it feels like a classroom.

As the class stretches on (and on ... Alessandra likes to talk), the cannelloni finally comes together. Alessandra explains every ingredient and step as she grates fresh cheese, flips crepes and stretches dough. I’m a little disappointed to discover that the class is more "watch and learn" than "all hands on deck," but once I get used to the pace and style, I have a blast—and eat well, too!

Afterward, as I put my head down to the cold and rush for my car, I spot the other women rushing down the block to visit a new store. I wistfully long to go with them. I doubt I’ll make Alessandra’s cannelloni at home. (Alessandra's recipes are about as precise as Grandma's ... or Nonna's.) But for $35, I’ve come away full, smiling and a little more knowledgeable about homestyle Italian food. Molto buono!

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