Since launching Airbnb Trips in late 2016, Airbnb has been gradually adding more bespoke (or small group) experiences to the company’s already popular home-sharing service. The concept seems very much like a no-brainer. In addition to helping you find a place to stay, visitors can now use the website to find things to do. It’s the sharing economy for activities — connecting travelers with locals to participate in DIY-heavy classes, tours, and events.
With over 4,500 Experiences now being offered in 55 markets, travelers can hook up everything from learning the authentic practice of hula from a Kumu Hula in Hawaii to exploring street art with a photographer in Lower Manhattan to learning about Spanish wines from a sommelier in Madrid.
Recently, Airbnb introduced their Experiences to my home city of Philadelphia and I jumped at the chance to check it out. Even as someone who grew up outside of the city and has lived here for the past decade, there were plenty of tempting options of the dozens already listed. Still, I couldn’t resist Italian Cooking with “La Mia Famiglia” — a cooking class hosted right out of a charming South Philadelphia row home.
The hosts are a husband and wife team, James Beard-nominated chef Joe Cicala, and his wife, acclaimed Philadelphia pastry chef Angela Cicala. In addition to hosting cooking classes, the Cicalas also host culinary tours to Italy, where they’re always learning more about the art of Italian cooking from locals.
When my friend Sarah and I stepped inside the Cicala home, we could immediately smell the “gravy” — as marinara sauce is commonly called in South Philly — simmering away on the stove. We were first to arrive, so our hosts uncorked a bottle of wine while we waited for the others.
Once the mix of locals and travelers were all in the kitchen, Joe and Angela set out two types of bruschetta (both traditional tomato and fava bean), and laid out the ingredients for the dishes we would be making, all from scratch: homemade sausage stuffed long hots, potato gnocchi with a meatball ragu, and both ricotta chocolate chip cannoli and house made biscotti for dessert.
Joe started out by making the dough for the gnocchi with some pre-boiled russet potatoes that had been dried under low heat in the oven for an hour. He riced them and mixed in egg, flour, and salt. Guests were invited to help roll the dough out into logs and cut them into pieces, before rolling them on a “rigagnocchi” board (sold at Fante’s kitchen supplies in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, or purchased by way of Amazon). This gave the mini dumplings their famous shape (a fork can come close to approximating the effect, but it’s not nearly as cool.)
Meanwhile, the rest of us got started on cutting the long hots — long stuffed hot peppers — and making the filling out of Joe’s house-made sausage. Perhaps the biggest lesson taken away from the evening was made by Sarah at this point, who learned not to touch your eyes after handling long hots.
Others mixed and rolled the meatballs, which were then pan fried to brown with a whole onion before everything was then transferred into the gravy to finish cooking.
With the meatballs in the oven, gnocchi rolled, and long hots stuffed and in the oven, we moved onto preparing the biscotti and cannoli. Angela made the cannoli dough in a flour nest right on the counter, which was then rolled out into sheets on a hand-cranked pasta maker before being formed into the cannoli shape by being wrapped around wooden logs to be fried.
While that was happening, Sarah and I prepped the mouth-watering filling with cow’s milk ricotta, sugar, dark rum, and fresh orange zest. Words can not even begin to describe the smells coming out of the kitchen by that point. In short: It was good. See for yourself:
Finally, all that was left to do was sit down at the Cicalas dining table for a big old Italian family dinner. In addition to the dishes we’d helped prepare, the chefs also brought oven roasted olives with orange zest, garlic, rosemary; and for the main course, “Pollo alla Milanese,” which consisted of fried, breaded chicken cutlets topped with broccoli rabe. I can say without an ounce of hyperbole that not only was this one of the best meals I’ve ever had in the city of Philadelphia, but I will also probably still be thinking of it as I sit in a nursing home, somewhere, decades from now.
Which is all just to say: While a cooking class with AirBnB experiences may be a great way to explore a new city, it’s also a great way to have a one of a kind night right in your own backyard. Now excuse me while I try to make some gnocchis of my own, flounder miserably, and then camp outside the Cicala’s house hoping that they leave a giant pot of them out in the hall.