Nonnas enjoy a near-mythic status in Italian culture. In one sense, they are the keepers of Italian culture – the living embodiment of a long culinary history passed down generationally throughout the centuries. In another sense, they’re just darn great cooks, often cooking with passion, love, insight and flexibility.
This writer has seen a nonna throw out an entire batch of arancini because it “cooked too slowly in the oil” and might not be perfect. At the same time, they often forgo measuring cups or even cutting boards, preferring to cook with their hands and memory. It’s this mixture of precise craft and freeform improvisation that makes them such a formidable culinary force.
Can you cook exactly like a nonna? Give it fifty more years in the kitchen and check back. In the meantime, you can get very close by following these few rules and practices.
Learn Through a Mixture of Research, Trial and Intuition
There’s no perfect replacement for a lifetime steeped in oral and experiential tradition. But the next best thing to do is start your journey with research. Instead of looking up recipes (which often give a single, dogmatic take on a dish), research the cultural heritage of dishes using an online food encyclopedia. Above, we’ve linked SkipTheDishes’ food wiki; the Canadian food delivery service does a fantastic job detailing the origins, philosophies and staple ingredients behind beloved Italian dishes.
Next, get in the kitchen! Learn by doing. You might fail a few times, but if you keep learning, adjusting and following your intuition, you should produce something delicious.
Think Seasonal and Simple
Seasonality and simplicity are the twin hallmarks of Italian cuisine. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need the entire spice cabinet to make a tomato sauce, nor do you need copious amounts of garlic and onions. Most Italian home cooks (and professional chefs) build their dishes to highlight central ingredients rather than distract with other flavours.
Head to your local farmer’s market – the closest approximation in Canada to Italy’s central markets – to see what’s in season. Incorporate these fresh vegetables into a simple pasta (with a generous grating of pecorino), or serve them alongside a humble fried cutlet. Round out your meal with cheese, seasonal fruit and a glass of good wine.
Taste and Adjust, Taste and Adjust
You can usually find an Italian grandma sticking a finger directly in the bubbling tomato sauce to taste it for seasoning. Unless you also have fingers made of iron, we don’t recommend this. Still, it’s best practice to taste and adjust your food along the way. (A spoon works just as well).
Basically, you’re tasting for a few critical elements. Does it have enough salt to bring forward each ingredient’s flavour? Is there a balance of acidity, or does it need some vinegar or citrus? Could it benefit from the musty heat of some black pepper or the sharp heat of a chilli? And does it require the brightness of a few fresh herbs? Using these considerations as benchmarks, tweak your dish until it’s perfect.
Cook to Comfort, Not to Impress
Unless you’re dining at a Michelin Star restaurant in Italy, you probably won’t find sous vide machines, mandolines or digital kitchen scales. You won’t see a basil chiffonade or a spherified gel, either. Italian home cooking can be impressive – but its primary goal is to provide comfort, sustenance and a sense of community.
To celebrate this philosophy, try to re-evaluate your motivations in the kitchen. When you have friends over, cook for comfort and togetherness. Consider your guests’ tastes and preferences, and use them as a launchpad for creating a meal. And don’t get too hung up on outward impressiveness. You’ll know that your meal is impressive by the smiles and clean plates around you.
Time and research, trial and error, simplicity and love – these form the basis of a great Italian cook. You might not be a nonna overnight, but you can start the journey with these simple steps.