“Cooking with Nonna” creator Rosella Rago

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Proud of her dual Italian and American roots, Rosella Rago has made a career of deliciously blending the two with her beloved grandmother by her side.

Rossella Rago, the culinary entrepreneur and host of the delightful instructional web series “Cooking with Nonna,” says her passion for food began just as you’d expect — when she was a little girl looking to lend a hand with Sunday supper.

“I remember spending hours in the kitchen just watching my mom, nonna, and great aunts all cooking and talking,” Rago says. “But I was so young they wouldn’t let me touch anything.”

Relegated to “taster” duties, Rago proved to be a voracious learner. Born and raised in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, she eventually was entrusted with running errands to local markets to pick up the Italian ingredients her culinary idols would transform into chicken Marsala, stuffed calamari, lasagna and, as Rago warmly recounts, about “14 other accompaniments.”

A first-generation Italian American who now lives with her husband in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, the 32-year-old Rago recounts how her parents emigrated to the United States from the small Italian fishing village of Mola di Bari, bringing with them a trove of recipes passed down from generation to generation. As she grew up, Rago regularly returned to Mola for summers with her extended family, participating in the city’s annual Sagra del Polpo, or Octopus Fest, and learning to appreciate her dual roots.

“Growing up Italian American, food and family were central to our lives,” Rago says. “My upbringing was distinctly Italian and American. I actually had no idea I lived in America until I was 5 years old! I feel I was the lucky one, though, because I was able to experience the depth and richness of two dynamic cultures. I loved my summers by the sea in Mola, and then, in the same breath, I’m deeply grateful for my Brooklyn upbringing.”

So it’s no surprise that Rago’s professional life, which she shares on screen with her 87-year-old Nonna Romana, is a warm-hearted expression of the old Italian saying: “A tavola non si invecchia,” which means “At the table, you don’t grow old.”

Launched in 2009, “Cooking with Nonna” finds Rago and her maternal grandmother, Romana Sciddurlo, demystifying authentic old-world Italian cooking. Streaming on YouTube as well as the Amazon, Roku and AppleTV platforms, the show is as straightforward as it is charming. Usually broadcasting weekly from nonna’s basement kitchen in Brooklyn, the duo shares easy-to-follow recipes for everything from homemade soppressata to cucciddati to arancini to, well, you name it. The episodes typically run 10-15 minutes, with each focusing on a single dish, and they all have the welcoming feeling of a Sunday afternoon hangout with cousins thanks to Rago’s exuberance and easygoing expertise.

Rago is sometimes joined by her mother, affectionately dubbed Mamma Angela, as well as a parade of guest nonne, each sharing the mouthwatering recipes that keep their families well fed. But it’s Nonna Romana, aglow with authenticity, sometimes clad in a housecoat that’ll transport you back to your own nonna’s house, who often steals the show.

“I love engaging with Nonna Romana, my Mamma Angela and all the guest nonne. Each of them brings something unique and special to the experience,” Rago says. “Nonna Romana always taught me that a written recipe can never replace intuition, and these women share their intuition on camera for all of us to see and savor. You can’t put it into words, and I love being a bridge between the old world and the new.”

Rago graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in Italian literature, but her fluency and ease in front of the camera was apparent at an early age. A natural-born entertainer, Rago participated in — and won — several Italian-American pageants. She has been a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists since the age of 10, and has appeared in several notable films, including “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “13 Going on 30” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic.”

But for Rago, the marriage between the performing and culinary arts wasn’t mapped out; it evolved over time.

“I thought I might be an actress or a teacher,” Rago says, “but through those formative years of navigating different jobs and constructs, what was most impactful to me were those evenings in nonna’s basement cooking and chatting. And the epiphany finally arrived: ‘Why not me, and why not a career in food?’”

Rago completed a cooking program at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, then began putting all the lessons she learned at home to professional use. The year after she launched her YouTube channel, she struck publicity gold, teaming up with her mother and grandmother to win the Italian-themed episode of the Food Network reality TV competition “24 Hour Restaurant Battle.” She soon took her act on the road, conducting public cooking demonstrations and hosting Italian-bound culinary adventures, including a 2019 jaunt to the Amalfi Coast.

Rago has penned two cookbooks — “Cooking with Nonna” and “Cooking with Nonna: A Year of Italian Holidays” — and turned her website, CookingWithNonna.com, into a one-stop bottega for Italian culture aficionados. In addition to her books, Rago sells Nonna Romana kitchen gear and pastas, custom-designed apparel, imported beauty products and a bevy of Italian foods — a significant entrepreneurial broadening of her growing brand.

“I wanted to offer my American fans an even more authentic glimpse and taste of Italian culture. Many of the products I source cannot be found in America, so that in itself was a huge opportunity,” Rago says. “I realized that the recipes themselves could be supplemented by these other rich elements of Italian culture and ingenuity, and I began designing new lines with my own flare.”

At press time, Mamma Angela was still stepping in to co-host the show while Nonna Romana safely sheltered at home during New York City’s coronavirus lockdown. But Rago says her platforms have seen a surge in viewership and sales as people learn to do more in their home kitchens.

Rago is hopeful that she’ll soon be back in front of the camera with her original creative partner to inspire people to whip up food that’s unapologetically both Italian and American. After all, Nonna Romana is the yin to Rago’s yang, the bread to her olive oil, the biscotti to her morning shot of espresso.

“Nonna Romana is my inspiration for most things if I’m being honest,” Rago says. “She is so resilient and smart. She came from Italy with little other than a good work ethic. I want to preserve her spirit and the spirit of her entire generation for the future.”

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The above appears in the August 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Jim Distasio

Jim Distasio is an award-winning writer, director, editor. His documentary “Sawdust: Life in the Ring,” about the Zoppè Family Circus, was an official selection at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the River’s Edge Film Festival. His documentary “5,000 Miles From Home,” about the impact of World War II on Chicago’s Italian-American community, earned two local Emmys on six nominations. Distasio earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an adjunct lecturer. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune Magazine, American Profile, Vine Line and Fra Noi.

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