Viktorija Todorovska
Viktorija Todorovska Credit: Clayton Hauck

Two years ago Viktorija Todorovska, who teaches cooking and wine courses in Chicago, learned how to make orecchiette and cavatelli in a pair of alleyways in the old town of Bari, Puglia, the southeastern Adriatic region of Italy that extends down the stiletto heel of the boot. A few months later she attended a five-day pasta-making workshop in Bologna, the epicenter of Italian gastronomy. The instructor at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese told her, “You have to forget everything you’ve learned because clearly you learned some incorrect things that I have to correct now.”

Todorovska refused to forget everything she’d learned, though, and this spring Agate Publishing’s Surrey Books will print her cookbook, The Puglian Cookbook: Bringing the Flavors of Puglia Home.

The Bolognese instructor’s opinion wasn’t simply the bias of a haughty northerner looking down on the simple cucina povera of the south. Arguing about cooking is a national pastime in Italy, and as Todorovska discovered during her research in Puglia, dissension exists even in Bari, among the women in the Quartiere delle Orecchiette, who make and sell the region’s signature pastas each morning at tables set up in front of their kitchens. When Todorovska asked one woman if the technique of thumbing out the nubby, navel-shaped cavatelli was the same as that of the earlike orecchiette, she was told, “No. You can never use the same technique, and don’t let anyone ever tell you cavatelli is orecchiette inside out.” Todorovska says the woman shared her technique, though “I couldn’t replicate it in ten years. But then the next lady I asked said, ‘Oh, a cavatello is just an orecchiette that’s turned inside out.'”

One afternoon last week Todorovska showed me how to make cavatelli in the kitchen of her Lakeview condo, pinching off and rolling marble-sized balls of semolina flour dough, kneaded with just water and salt—no egg. She pressed lightly down on each with her thumb and pushed it across a dish towel to form textured, tiny-lipped, sauce-cradling pockets. She cranked out nearly a trayful in the time I’d mashed out a dozen stubby, swollen lumps.

She’s not as strict as her Bolognese teacher. “It’s just a matter of confidence,” she told me. “Really, it’s not gonna be wrong. You might not think it looks very pretty, but at the end of the day it’ll be fine.”

A native of Macedonia, where she studied English and Italian as an undergraduate, Todorovska started cooking only after she came to the U.S. in the early 90s. As a grad student in rhetoric and linguistics at Arizona State University, she taught herself to cook from magazines because she didn’t have much money and wanted to feed herself well. After graduating she got a job in Chicago with a company that was creating an online MBA curriculum, and having become a passionate cook in the meantime, she used her first steady paycheck to buy good knives, take classes, and start throwing dinner parties.

By 2003 Todorovska was working at another job in online education, one that allowed her to work remotely, which meant she could travel more. In the summer of 2006 she enrolled in a summer session at Apicius, a professional culinary school in Florence aimed at foreigners, particularly English and Japanese chefs. She took classes until 5 PM, when it was still early morning in North America, then returned to her apartment to get to work on her day job.

There are vast differences between regional northern Italian cuisines like those of wealthy Bologna and Tuscany and the simple peasant food of the south—not to mention prejudices. So Todorovska was surprised when the instructor in her regional Italian food class declared that southern Puglia had the best food in Italy. “And this was coming from a woman from Tuscany,” she says. “You don’t hear that kind of stuff every day. I trusted her enough to know she was serious, so I couldn’t wait to get to get there.”

She spent the following summer studying in Florence again and in 2008 took an overnight train from Rome to Puglia to take an olive oil course. She awoke to one of those storybook epiphanies common to the dedicated Italophile.

“I opened the shade on the window of the train compartment and there were all these 8,000-year-old trees and the sea in the background and I thought, “I’m in love.” After a week of intensive olive oil tasting—Puglia is Italy’s largest producer—she traveled around eating, collecting recipes, and getting to know the rest of the region.

Puglian recipes are based on a few simple ingredients—lots of vegetables, and not much meat. “What makes the elements stand out is their excellence—particularly the olive oil—and the streamlining of dishes that allows the character of each ingredient to shine.”

For the cavatelli we were making she put together two typical sauces—a classic sauteed broccoli with grated pecorino, red pepper flakes, garlic, and couple of anchovies melted into the olive oil; and some crumbled turkey sausage cooked in canned San Marzano tomatoes and red wine. On the side: a mashed chickpea paté with steamed dandelion greens seasoned with nothing more than a fruity olive oil.

Upon her return, she began to write down recipes for friends and the students in the home cooking classes she’d begun to teach. Back then the only major cookbook specializing in Pugliese food—Flavors of Puglia, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins—had long been out of print. By the following summer her recipe-collecting had evolved into a full-blown book project, as she spent several months in Puglia over a few separate visits talking to old ladies, bakers, vintners, and restaurateurs, eating during the day, and then returning to her apartment in the evening to turn what she’d learned into recipes.

What resulted was a 157-page collection of the essentials of Pugliese cooking, with recipes ranging from a tomato-topped flatbread known as puddica to baked squid stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs, and capers to the potato, rice, and mussel casserole tiella (see the recipe on the Reader blog the Food Chain).

I asked Todorovska how a cuisine so dependent on the terroir of its ingredients can translate well to home cooks in the United States. “There’s no way to make it exactly,” she says. “By definition those things will have different flavors. What I’m hoping people will get out of it is, yes, it won’t taste exactly as it would in Puglia, but they are great dishes that will teach you something about the region. And hopefully people start to travel more and experience the real thing.”