November 11, 2017

Cooking With Nonna Cookbook Review
Annunziata Dellagrotta

    There are 63 cookbooks in my library – 23 of which are devoted to the Italian cuisine of the many diversified regions of Italy – and while I have my favorites, not one has touched me the way Cooking With Nonna has.

    Upon receiving the e-mail telling me my book had shipped and was on its way, I anxiously awaited its arrival.  When it was finally delivered, and I removed the packaging, opened the book and saw Rossella's handwritten dedication to my grandmother and me, saw our names together on the flyleaf, I felt my grandmother with me again.  An overwhelming wave of emotion washed over me, and before I knew what was happening, I'd wrapped that book in my arms, pressed it to my heart, and cried.

    My grandmother – I didn't call her “Nonna”, she was “Gramma” -  was the only grandparent I ever knew.  She died three days after I turned four.  I'm in my late 60's now, and not only do I remember her, but I even remember what she said to me when I was three years old and we were all gathered together in my Aunt Christina's kitchen.  One of my cousins, who was four months older than I and never let me forget it, was daring me to do something really stupid.  Never one to turn down a dare, as I sat on Gramma's lap, her arms around me, I was thinking it over when she tilted her head close to mine and whispered in my ear in her Italian-accented English, “Don't do what he says.  You're smarter than he is.”  I'd laid my head on her breast, feeling proud she thought I was smart, but I don't think I had ever actually thought, one way or the other, about being smart until that moment she told me I was.

    I have never stopped missing Gramma, and I never would have thought a cookbook could bring her back to me – along with so many other memories of growing up in a very big Italian family – but that's exactly what Cooking With Nonna did.

    Though comprised of easy to follow recipes and familiar ingredients, Cooking With Nonna is so much more than a cookbook.  It's a journal.  Rossella Rago's passionate portrayal of the many nonne personally pictured within the framework of their Italian heritage, sharing their lives with the reader through their memories, as well as their age-old recipes, is bound to dig deep into the hearts and stir up the memories of all who read it.                                                                                      
    Page after page of reminiscences transported me back to my own childhood.

    Nonna Maria Fiore escorted me to my Aunt Mary's basement kitchen where a multitude of family, friends, or anyone who simply dropped by, gathered at the long, well-worn wooden table.  Where we children were free to run around as we pleased, and where I watched my Uncle Tommy pulling mounds of steamed greens from a huge steel pot.  He and I particularly loved greens, and to this day I cannot prepare them without thinking of him.

    Nonna Romana's account of the Italian tradition of using pastina as baby food took me to my family's home in Connecticut, where we squeezed into our chairs at our very large round table in our very small rectangular kitchen, and I fed pastina – with just a touch of tomato sauce and grated cheese – to my brother in his highchair.  Of course, I had to taste it first to convince him how good it was, and I fell in love with the delicate texture myself.  There's a huge Mason jar full of pastina in my pantry right now, and Nonna Romana's “Stelline Pastina With Parmigiano” is on tonight's menu.

    Even Rossella's memory of her nonna's focaccia that “served as her aromatic alarm clock on Sunday mornings” parallels my own of being awakened every Sunday morning by the aroma of onions and garlic sauteing in olive oil – the beginnings of my mother's much loved and unparalleled tomato sauce – wafting up the stairs into my bedroom, an enticing promise of what was to come.

    Cooking With Nonna is also a photo album.  Rossella's family portraits on the inside cover, where the reader's given a peek into her life, lead us into the heart of the book itself.  Abundant with vividly colored pictures of the nonne and Evi Abeler's stunning photographs of their exquisite dishes, I get the feeling I know these women, and can all but taste the food on the page.

    Like a richly-filled Italian dessert, Rossella Rago has filled her beautiful book with dolce amore - sweet love that reaches out from every heartwarming word, every incredibly tantalizing photograph, every mouthwatering recipe.  And, yes, while the nonne are Italian, and the food is Italian, the love is universal.  I can't imagine there's a soul who will read this book and not be taken back to their own childhood.  Not be more strongly united – or reunited - with their own grandmother.

    Those who have their nonne with them, and those of us who no longer do, owe Rossella Rago a debt of gratitude for eternally binding us to them – whether here and now – or just in our memories.     Thank you.