Benard Tamburello surveys the ingredients for the tiramisu he is about to prepare, while Giuliana Russo-Skinner animatedly talks about the bawdy origins of the Italian dessert. Her story draws laughs from some 60 people sipping wine in the audience.

Thus begins another evening session of Cooking with Culture, fun-packed classes held at Vecchia Pizzeria and Mercato, Tamburello’s Italian restaurant and provisions market in The Preserve community in west Hoover.

The chef and Russo-Skinner, a former language professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Samford University, use Italian food as a springboard to explore the country’s people and customs.

“Everybody loves Italian culture,” says Russo-Skinner, who was born in the Puglia region of southern Italy and visits her family’s home twice yearly. “Food is a vehicle for culture. It tells a lot about a place, the history of the place, its traditions. We’re bringing Italy to Alabama without the airfare.”

(Cooking with Culture/Facebook)

Cooking with Culture, which premiered in 2018, offers two distinct types of classes, each held monthly. (Some months, like December, have three classes.)

Saturday sessions are hands-on and open to all ages. In some, participants make different pastas – lasagna, ravioli, orecchiette, or gnocchi – while learning about their backstories and cultural significance. Some Saturdays, the class focuses on Neapolitan-style pizza, which they cook in Vecchia’s Italian-brick oven. Two classes in December will focus on Italian white biscotti holiday cookies.

The other set, adults-only gatherings called Wine and Dine, is held on a Thursday evening. As the name suggests, participants sample and learn about Italian wines, aperitivos, or cocktails while Tamburello cooks for the group.

(Cooking with Culture/Facebook)

“The nighttime is different,” says Russo-Skinner. “It’s more of a date night, or for people to hang out with their friends. We watch Chef Benard make it, and we eat it.”

The food might feature Italian sauces, meatballs, or hand-pulled fresh mozzarella. All recipes originate with either Russo-Skinner’s family back home, or Tamburello’s Italian-American family.

Each cooking session draws 50-60 people to Vecchia, which is closed for the events. The class schedule, ticket information, and e-gift cards are available online. Cooking with Culture also offers Italian language classes.

The gatherings are loose and impromptu, like a live show, says Russo-Skinner, who now sells real estate. She is a born storyteller and narrator with a passion for philology. A veteran restaurateur, Tamburello is personable and comfortable in front of a crowd. Together, they’re molto Italiano.

(Cooking with Culture/Facebook)

“I’m the host and he’s my ‘Italian Stallion,’ I call him,” Russo-Skinner says. “We argue like he’s my little brother, the brother I never had. It truly is like a big Italian family – without any filters. We are loud.”

Drawn by buzz she was hearing about his pizza, Russo-Skinner met Tamburello soon after he and his wife, Brianna, opened Vecchia in 2014. Then teaching language, linguistics, and culture at UAB, she began hiring him to cater end-of-semester gatherings and departmental parties.

After her career switch, Russo-Skinner realized she loved the challenges of real estate, but missed teaching. Tamburello readily agreed when she pitched a class with the relatively novel approach of blending cultural storytelling with Italian food and cooking.

“It is such an old country, full of traditions,” she says. “And we’re a funny people too. So, every dish has a story behind it. Some are naughtier than others, I’ll tell you that.”

So, what’s the salacious story behind tiramisu?

“I can’t tell you,” Russo-Skinner says, laughing. “You’ve got to come to the class.”

Next courses at Cooking for Culture

  • Hands-on: Homemade lasagna; Saturday, November 18, 10 a.m.
  • Wine and Dine: Tiramisu; Thursday, November 30, 6:30 p.m.
  • Hands on: Italian White Biscotti Cookies with Nona; Saturday December 3, 2 p.m.
  • Hands-on: Italian White Biscotti Cookies with Nona; Saturday, December 16, 10 a.m.
  • Tacky Sweater Christmas Party/Limoncello; Tuesday, December 19, 6:30 p.m.