This article may contain compensated links. See our full disclosure here
Pasta and Italian nonnas go hand in hand. We talk a whole lot of pasta with the founder of Nonna Live, an online cooking school that’s brought the art of pasta making to the world! Pasta is, of course, an integral part of Italian cuisine with endless variations that are tweaked from region to region. From ear-shaped orecchiette of Puglia, to the rich egg pasta with truffles in the North or a simple but divine spaghetti carbonara from Rome – pasta is everything in Italy and its methods and traditions are passed down, like an heirloom, from generation to generation.
In this episode, we talk to Chiara Nicolanti about the enchanting story of her wonderful pasta-making grandma – Nonna Nerina. Before covid, Chiara and Nonna Nerina were hosting guests in their village just outside Rome, teaching them the recipes and stories of their region and making hundreds of friends along the way. When the pandemic hit, with the help of some of these friends, Nonna Nerina’s skilled pasta making (not to mention singing and dancing) was brought into the homes of pasta-loving people all over the world and she has become quite the internet sensation and even brought fame to other fabulous Nonnas from their home village of Palombara Sabina. A beautiful tale of home cooking and humanity!
What you’ll learn in this episode
- The village of Palombara Sabina is a small, medieval village in the middle of the olive trees not far from Rome
- Like many young people, when she was young, Chiara wanted to escape her small village and after moving away to study, she traveled all over the world before life having thrown her a curveball, she eventually found herself back in the kitchen of her beloved Nonna Nerina, being (re)taught to make pasta and listening to the tales of her Nonna’s past
- Traditionally on Sundays the women of an Italian family would get together to make pasta-together – the grandma, the daughters, the cousins, the aunties all together to make pasta by hand together using just the big rolling pin and their hands. As much about the bonding as it is about the cooking and eating (although the eating after is pretty good too!)
- The rhythm of the seasons is so important – knowing the right moment to pick the tomatoes to make the tomato sauce and the right moment to pick the olives to be pressed for the extra virgin olive oil
- Cooking with Nonna became so popular that they now have other Nonnas in the village hosting the cooking lessons – all accompanied be one of their grandchildren who are there to translate to English but also to add that wonderful family dynamic
- The olive oil from their region is such amazing quality that the dough is super elastic even though you have no eggs inside
- Always use the best ingredients you can get your hands on – organic eggs from free-range chickens, flour that isn’t too refined (ideally from a mill)
- Many people think that they have an intolerance to gluten because the flour that they use in shop bough pasta is too refined, so there is too much gluten inside. When a mill presses it simply, there is less gluten and therefore it’s so much easier to digest and be healthy
- The making of pasta in this way is really relaxing and calming – a tactile sensation. It cannot be rushed. The rhythmic caress of the dough, as Chiara puts it is like Pasta Therapy!
- One of the main secrets to making good pasta is to give it time to rest or to have a nap, as Nonna Nerina says. A napkin can be the bed and you put it on the bed to breathe. You need to check and when it’s changed the color and the consistency is a little bit different – that’s the moment to cut it. If you wait too much, it will crack when you cut. If you don’t wait long enough to cut the pasta it will stick.
- No matter if you make pasta to the exact same recipe, it will be different every time – the temperature, the humidity, the richness or size of the eggs, an extra knead and even the temperature of your own hands means it will always be slightly different
- They have found there are many reasons why people joined their online classes and during the pandemic, they’ve found sometimes that loneliness has brought people to the classes, and that’s beautiful because no matter how reticent they are to begin with, by the end they have opened their cameras and their hearts and finish knowing that they have a grandma in Italy waiting for them
- Nonna Nerina is 85 but shows no signs of slowing down and loves to do classes every day and loves to sing and dance
- They like to make some seasonal pasta recipes alongside their favorites and for Mother’s Day classes they will make some pasta with edible flowers inside – more info
About our guest – Chiara & her Nonna Nerina
Chiara is an Italian woman, mum, and entrepreneur. She was born in a small village in the center of Italy, in between the shadows of the ancient olive trees and the high roman walls. She had the chance to study Literature, Art, and Acting all around the world, and has always been a hungry traveler. In her twenties she trod the scenes of several theatres, sharing her love for the Classic writers and the new arts.
When she turned 29 she got pregnant, and her entire world collapsed. She decided to quit her career, went back to her village looking for support, and I found her grandma, Nonna Nerina, kneading the dough in her birth home. She was there waiting for her, ready to share her story. Chiara sat and listened. She taught her again how to make pasta from scratch, she taught her to let the time pass, respect the rhythm of nature, and the time of life. They sat and cooked every day together waiting for her child to be born, waiting for a new season, a new spring, singing at the sunset, celebrating life.
Chiara took a lot of pictures of those times, and when her baby turned 6 months old she decided to share that gem with the world. They opened our door, and invite people to come in. This is how Pasta with Grandma was born. In less than 3 years they had more than 5000 people in their kitchen, cooking with them, laughing, sharing, and singing together!
And when the Coronavirus arrived they went “live”. They created Nonna Live in a weekend, together with Brent Freeman, their American soul-brother, one of their first in-person guests. He built for them their first American website on Shopify, while her husband Enrico built their first TV set in grandma’s kitchen. And while the Coronavirus spread in the world, they kept their doors open, even though in a different way, fighting against loneliness and fear, one fettuccine at the time!
For every class, Nonna Live will provide a warm meal to a child in need. They have partnered with local non-profits to provide underprivileged children access to nutritional food. Nonna Live is committed to ensuring children everywhere don’t go to sleep hungry.
You can also find Chiara on these social media channels:
- Website – www.nonnalive.com
- YouTube – Nonna’s Handmade Pasta With Grandma
- Facebook – www.fb.com/pastawithgrandma
- Instagram – www.instagram.com/pastawithgrandma
Food & Drink
- gnocchetti palommaresi – a type of pasta
- pici – thick, hand-rolled pasta, like fat spaghetti
- cannelloni – tubular, filled pasta
- fettuccine – long flat pasta lengths
- orecchiette – ear shaped pasta
- spaghetti vongole – a diesho of spaghetti with clams
- spaghetti carbonara – spaghetti dish from Rome made with egg, hard cheese, cured pork, and black pepper (not cream as per many bad imitations)
Places mentioned in the show
- Palombara Sabina – the village that Chiara and Nonna live and they do their classes with the other Nonnas from
- Prima Donna – in opera, the Prima Donna is the leading female singer in the company and it’s now an expression for someone who’s the star of the show of life/a diva
Resources from Untold Italy
- Some Italian food reads to get you salivating – Piedmont Food: 8 morsels you have to eat!, Most delicious and best Rome food tours and experiences and 35 Italian food facts to inspire a trip to Italy
- Listen to some other foodie episodes – Episode #034: Lifting the lid on Bologna’s food culture, Episode #021: Savoring Sorrento – a food lovers guide to Italy’s city by the sea, Episode #033: Foodie finds in the Sabine hills near Rome and Episode #046: Foodie adventures in Puglia. In Episode #004: Mangia! Mangia! Food and eating in Italy Katy and Josie share their favorite dishes, restaurants and food experiences in Italy.
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.