Last year, a difficult life event landed author Rossella Rago back in her childhood home in Brooklyn—upstairs from where her grandmother, Nonna Romana, lives. "When I look back to the synchronicity of my life, I see now that the worst moments are still gifts," Rago recently told me over Zoom. Every day, she walked downstairs and spent time with her Nonna, who shared so many stories with her. These stories became the backbone of her new cookbook, Cooking with Nonna: Sunday Dinner with La Famiglia.
"This cookbook is a love letter to my Italian American upbringing," says Rago. "I grew up with Nonna in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which was a microcosm of the village my parents came from in southern Italy. I had no idea I lived in America until I was five and went to school." Rago pays homage to her Nonna and the dishes the family gathered around each Sunday, both traditional and recreated, using what was available in America.
Within the first few pages—even before I got to the recipes—I was enveloped in Nonna Romana's warmth and tickled by Rago's lightheartedness. My chat with Rago stirred many emotions in me—joy, sadness, surprise, and compassion. I suspect her family's Sunday dinners "set for ten people, minimum" would feel the same. If she ever invites you over for a Sunday dinner, bring your biggest appetite and flowers for Nonna Romana—and take me as your plus one because I'd also love some orecchiette.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When I saw Anelletti with Tiny Meatballs in the cookbook, I thought, Oh my gosh, she made a copycat SpaghettiOs recipe! Please tell me how this recipe came to be.
When I was little I told Nonna about this pasta that my friend Jennifer's mother makes that looks so cool (SpaghettiOs). You see, Nonna always tried to appease me with whatever American thing I was obsessed with. Like I remember wanting Dunkin' Donuts. She said, "No! We don't eat Dunkin' Donuts!" but then she made me a bundt cake that looked like a big donut with sprinkles on top.
She tried to interpret what I wanted, in our own Italian way. So when I told her I wanted SpaghettiOs, she said, "I could do that!" That's the recipe.
Looking back now, I can see that she respected both sides of my heritage. She's an Italian, but she realized that her granddaughter is Italian American. She's cute like that.
One day, you will be someone’s nonna. What is one thing you've learned from Nonna Romana that you’d want to pass on to your own grandchildren?
I often get feedback from my followers who say, "I try to make this dish and it's not like my nonna's. I just can't get that same flavor!" It's never supposed to taste the same because you're a different person. And one day you'll be a nonna and your kids will say the same thing about their cooking. You flavor everything with your own love, your own experience, and your own zhuzh. Everybody who cooks puts their own mark on their dish, so I would encourage my grandkids to detach themselves from replicating something 100% because they never will.
How's Nonna doing?
In the past few weeks we almost lost Nonna to a brain hemorrhage, but she's the toughest woman I've ever met in my entire life. There's just something about that generation—she was born in 1933. In my humble opinion, that's the greatest generation that has ever lived. We're just not made like that anymore. What inspires me the most is that no matter how much sorrow and grief she's experienced—she lost her husband at 29 and immigrated twice with two children; she worked so hard for years and years and years; she made money then lost it all; and she never quite accomplished the things that she thought she needed to in her life—yet she still smiles, she still has hope, she still has joy, she still has so much charisma. Just to see how steadfast she is through adversity is so inspiring to me.
There is never enough time to spend with someone you love. I encourage everyone to ask the questions now. If there is something you want to know from a living relative, go there and have coffee, or call, and ask them everything you ever wanted to know now. Do what you must because you never know what can happen tomorrow.