We don’t all have an Italian grandmother to teach us how to cook.
But, with Rossella Rago’s new cookbook, Cooking with Nonna (Race Point Publishing, $30), we might feel as if we do.
The Bensonhurst native’s tome on classic Italian cookery, nonna-style, opens a door into the cozy, busy kitchens ruled by these talented women who, for decades, have defined Italian-American family cuisine.
Thus, in the 110 recipes from 25 Italian nonnas, including her own, Romana Sciddurlo, Rago presents recipes for a broad array of favorite Italian-American foods, having done the work of taking recipes that rely on a coffee cup of this and a handful of that — from Minestrone to Four-Cheese Lasagna to Sausage and Peppers — and quantifying them.
These include the two recipes that Rago said are probably her favorites — Nonna Romana’s Eggplant Parmigiana, Pugliese-Style, and her Wedding Cake, the same cake that was prepared at Nonna Romana’s own nuptials.
About half of the recipes in the volume, Rago said, come from her grandmother whom she describes as “just my greatest inspiration,” though she stresses that all of the nonnas featured in the book are “incredible people” who “really faced tremendous challenges in their lives.”
The book is about the food they created, but equally, Rago said, “It’s about their lives. I felt it was really important to highlight their stories. These women are really incredible and they all taught me [as they appeared next to her on her web TV show] it’s never too late to begin something in your life. Unlike the ingredients we cook with, women have no expiration date.”
Rago didn’t always intend to be a web TV chef and cookbook writer. Rather, she had planned to teach high-school-level Italian when she had a brainstorm and floated the idea to her father of becoming a TV chef.
“My dad laughed and said call it, ‘Cooking with Nonna,’” which made perfect sense as Rago had learned to cook right at her grandmother’s elbow, living in her home as she attended St. John’s University in Staten Island.
“Little did I know I was in culinary school the whole time,” Rago joked.
A week after the conversation between father and daughter, Rago went on, “He bought the website name, cookingwithnonna.com and built me a cooking island, and I started filming episodes,” Rago recalled. “Ten years later, I have a Facebook following of 657,000 fans.”
That includes lots of people, like Rago, who grew up eating Nonna’s cooking but had no idea how to replicate it. It’s this that Rago seeks to do through her video episodes and through the cookbook, as well as profiling the many nonnas who have contributed to the volume.
“Every time I get a recipe, it’s kind of like being on a treasure hunt,” Rago explained. “All of the nonnas have different measuring systems.” So, to reproduce the recipes, she went into each nonna’s kitchen and watched her cook, taking note of the size coffee cup they used (obviously, an espresso cup holds a lot less than a mug), as well as the size of her hands (to calculate what a handful actually is for each of them).
“The main thing I wanted to accomplish,” Rago went on, “was to make sure the recipes are accessible to everyone. Everything is measured to the best of my ability.”
That said, however, Rago encourages readers to make their own adjustments, as all of the nonnas assuredly did. “It’s not about following a recipe to a T. It’s about developing your own relationship to the food,” she stressed.
For Rago, her upbringing in Bensonhurst has done a great deal to shape her. A first-generation American and descendant, on both sides, of families from Mola di Bari in southern Italy, she said that the neighborhood’s Italian markets replicated, as closely as possible, “Shopping in Italy. My family found it really easy to maintain our traditions, especially our food traditions.
“I don’t think, if I had been from any other part of the world, that I would be able to do the work that I do,” Rago said.
“Being from Brooklyn,” she added, “is the main ingredient in my identity.”