I still remember the excitement I felt going to bed the night before the big day, and I am not talking about the day of my wedding. The feeling you had as a kid – and that hopefully you still have – for all those things that happened only once a year. In this case, the most beautiful day of summer. It was comparable to the way we used to feel on Christmas Eve… we looked forward to seeing if Santa was going to eat the biscuits we prepared next to the fireplace that we couldn’t sleep. It was the night before the day we made “i pomodori” (tomato sauce) that I was so impatient!
Like in those vintage pictures you find in the back of a drawer, we were all there. My grandma, aunts, cousins, great-aunts. All the women of my life got together to spend the day in my grandparents garage to prepare the most delicious and genuine tomato sauce.
I remember the abundant golden light creeping into the dark space from the huge and heavy rolling shutters, and us smiling and chatting radiant and joyful in our colourful outfits. The elders wore a white bandana and a faded flowered cotton gown, with a style that was intentionally unsophisticated, but naturally glamorous. The younger ones wore their loungewear or those clothes that didn’t matter if they got dirty and – since this happened during the 90s for me – I remember the brightest palette you can think of!
The day started in the early morning chopping the tomatoes – I was only allowed to wait and see. Once chopped, they were placed in enormous pots together with 5 kg of carrots, 4 onions and some celery. I have a memory of myself being extremely busy in helping and supporting the work chain of chopping, stirring, filtering, bottling, etc etc. I think about that day often and the image I have in my mind seems to be incredibly vivid. However I recently had a chat with my grandma to brush up those warm days of early September, and she stated that my role back then was limited to placing the filled bottles in a row outside the garage!
This is my first souvenir of being a kid at work with food. As many Italian girls I had the privilege of growing up cooking with my grandmothers and learning recipes alongside them. Besides having grandmas from two different Italian regions – Emilia Romagna and Abruzzo – I alternated my helper role from one kitchen to the other preparing gnocchi with the Abruzzese and passatelli with the Emilian.
Different recipes or the adaptation of the same one. In Abruzzo lasagna is made with mozzarella cheese, whereas in Emilia you cannot call it lasagna if it is not overfilled with béchamel. Tasting these sorts of variations is a practice that helped me refine my taste and appreciate the peculiarities of cuisine among different regions in our splendid country.
On top of the regional specialties, many of the most common Italian dishes have been reinterpreted in every region, influenced by the local customs. Dishes you think you know like the back of your hand surprise you with unexpected ingredients added along the way, passed down from grandmas to grandchildren travelling between the Bel Paese. This happens because we Italians are creative, but also because we are so passionate about eating – among other simple pleasures in life – that we developed a refined taste!
Have I just made you hungry? Italy is waiting to be explored with the right approach, going beyond the most touristic places where lasagna’s taste flat you will absorb all the nuances. Italians love to share and “adding a chair to the table” is our mantra. By simply encountering the right people you might have a chance to try Italian nonne’s (grandma’s) dishes and feel part of the big family.
For most Italians eating has never been only about nourishing yourself, but a moment to be together, a pure celebration. Like our Sunday lunch, of course at grandma’s! Not just a lunch, but an entire day devoted to the family, starting from the morning patiently readying the food… and as a kid I was always in the front row to help!
Now grown up, having moved abroad and with less opportunities to spend Sunday mornings cooking with nonne the nostalgia about those sweet memories were revived during the lockdown. It was inevitable, I organised a full immersion with them over the last Christmas holidays.
My winter break was all about afternoons hearing my grandmas’ different accents and a couple of words in dialect here and there. Afternoons full of chats and anecdotes and a continued reference to the value of time. Yes, time. Both of them mentioned to me the importance of time when a woman cooks, something that is getting lost with today’s hurry.
Nonna Sofia, my Abruzzese grandma, mentioned that she still remembers the flavour of the rabbit her mum used to prepare, a dish she cooked for over half a day. “For sure you can make it more quickly, but it won’t taste the same simply because of the little time you dedicate to cook it!”. In another kitchen, nonna Fio’, the Emilian one, stated that the secret of the original Certosino di Bologna is to leave the ingredients together in a bowl for days before kneading them… “The longer they stay, the better it gets!”
It was beautiful realising that my enthusiasm in learning from my nonne hasn’t changed over time, just like their knowledge and indescribably wise way of using their hands. Those hands that now get tired earlier and that the signs of age made fascinating and full of stories to tell. Those hands that I would photograph infinite times.
But on to the serious stuff! What are my nonne’s secrets to prepare the best passatelli and gnocchi? And, which one would you choose between the two of them? This will be a head-to-head between Northern and (almost) Southern cuisine, I would personally go for both!
Ricetta (recipe) Gnocchi by nonna Sofia
“The most important thing is to get the right potatoes, making sure they are floury and do not have a lot of moisture.”
You can count 1 medium size potato per person
You boil the potatoes and once they are cooked and soft enough you drain them and squash them with a fork
Add 100 gr of white flour for each potato you boiled and salt
Blend the mix and knead
Once the ingredients are well blended divide the dough in small / medium size balls and you wait until they cool down
Once cold, start to roll each ball using two hands to make it long and rounded – the width depends on how big you want the gnocchi to be
Cut it in 1-2 cm pieces and voila!
Nonna Sofia believes gnocchi must be eaten with salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce), possibly the one mentioned at the beginning of the article, and a lot of parmesan cheese on top!
Ricetta Passatelli by nonna Fio’ – 4 people
“The most important thing is to use the same quantity of parmesan and breadcrumbs“
In a big bowl place 300 gr of parmesan cheese and 300 gr of thin breadcrumbs (the thinnest you can find)
Add a bit of nutmeg
Mix everything together using your hands until the are no clumps (my grandma wants to let you know it is absolutely critical that there are no clumps)
Add the grated peel of a big yellow lemon, a tablespoon of white flour and two pinches of salt
Add 4 eggs (both yolks and whites) and keep working the dough with your hands inside the bowl
You can add up to 2 more eggs in order to mix the ingredients well
Once the dough is compact enough you can move it to the table to finish blending it and cut it in a few small balls
Place each ball inside a potato masher, press it and cut the passatelli when they get 4-5 cm long – better to have a little helper here.
The best way to enjoy passatelli, according to nonna Fio’, is with broth of capone. If you opt for this recipe you can cut the passatelli right into the boiling broth. They’re ready once they rise to the surface (approx 4 minutes).
Andrea Martina Specchio is the founder of Be My Journey which enables travelers to journey responsibly