Never Have I Ever: Cooked Pasta From Scratch With An Italian Nonna

The experience: A 2-hour virtual cooking session live from Italy, Nonna Live

The reason: Because I plan to be the person at the dinner party post-pandemic who casually slips, “Well, I know how to cook gnocchi from scratch,” into the conversation.

Wear with: Bring a little romance with you to Roma in our Rosie Cream Cardigan by Cinta The Label

~ 3 min read 

I love when someone who is contemplating dating me asks me if I can cook. It’s equivalent to asking, “Would you be excited to do my laundry one day?” Because I don’t want to die alone, I’ll usually lie and say, “I have a few signature dishes,” when the truth is the only dish I can cook is Chicken Milanese two ways. 

“Chicken Milanese” is a fancy way of saying chicken with two simple ingredients slapped on top. While I can thank Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook for this term, it was my mother who first taught me the art of cooking for dummies. My mother’s idea of “home cooking” was seasoning a chicken breast with a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup. When I started university, my mother wrote a recipe down on the back of a Nordstrom’s receipt and sent me on my way. The recipe called for a frozen slab of salmon covered in Dijon mustard. Any Dijon would do.

2021 is all about new beginnings, or at least that’s what my therapist tells me on Zoom. If you can teach a man to fish for a lifetime, why not teach this Deliveroo-addict how to cook? 

Enter Nonna. Nonna is not actually my nonna of course - I wish! But for a small fee (£40), this 84-year-old, wholesome, Italian grandmother will teach you how to cook a variety of pasta dishes from scratch. Pre-class, you receive a list of ingredients to forage for and a few prep instructions. When your 2-hour window arrives, Nonna Zooms in from a small town just outside of Rome, which is pretty woke for an 84-year-old. And just like that, you’re “in Italy.” 

There were a few factors working against me in the kitchen. I currently live in an Air BnB – don’t ask - thus I have zero cooking tools. I found two wooden spoons and a dull knife, an unideal place to begin. To compound on this, I selected Nonna’s seasonal recipe, Pumpkin Gnocchi with Parmigiano sauce. I guess Nonna likes to use the word “seasonal” casually. It would have been easier for me to find the cure for coronavirus than a fresh pumpkin in W8-11. 

After scavenging Whole Foods and BENS, I remained a pumpkin-less Cinderella, desperately in need of a fairy godmother and a drink. Exhausted and too embarrassed to continue asking where store owners kept their Halloween decorations in spring, I subbed in something called an onion squash. An onion squash is the Kylie Kardashian of the pumpkin family pre-transformation. It has potential, but it’s not about to be placed proudly on anyone’s doorstep any time soon.

As per Nonna’s pre-class instructions, I cooked my “pumpkin” in the oven for 40 minutes and boiled my potato in a pot that looked like it came with the set of plastic tea cups my three-year-old niece uses in her playroom. At 4PM, Nonna appeared onscreen. She was exactly as you would imagine; cheerful, apron-clad, and aged beautifully into her 80s the way only Italian women can manage. She was accompanied by whom I took to be either her nephew or her lover, Danny. Danny was young, vibrant, and thankfully, spoke both Italian and English. He was here for moral support and to translate Nonna’s expertise to the group.

I took an inventory of my classmates. Chuck and Jackie were Zooming in from Ohio. They were middle-aged and middle American in every sense. Chuck was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Stranger Wings” and admitted to having spiked his coffee with bourbon this morning. I took an instant liking to them. There was an unspoken sense of solidarity between us of the sort I have only previously felt between women in the waiting room of my OBGYN.

Linda was from New York and wearing a chef’s hat. I immediately distrusted her. Cynthia was from Ontario and had an egg timer ticking and a notepad. See my note regarding Linda. Danny introduced us to Nonna who waved amicably and pretended to know what he was saying. He suggested raising a glass to toast to us showing up. Cynthia announced that she wasn’t drinking in February. Cynthia seemed like the type of woman who wouldn’t know fun if it knocked her egg timer off the table. “Good job even if you don’t drink,” Danny offered. I silently disagreed.

“Does anyone have any questions before we begin?” Danny asked.  

“I have something I’d like to tell Nonna,” I said, piping up. Twelve virtual eyes turned in my direction. 

“I couldn’t quite find a pumpkin,” I ventured, almost adding, “because Halloween was four months ago…” but instead opted for, “I have an onion squash.”

Danny, looking alarmed, translated this to Nonna. Nonna received the news like someone has just told her she has three weeks to live. I felt like the only kid in the lunchroom whose mom didn’t pack them a Snackable. Danny tried to console me by saying, “Nonna thinks maybe you can make it work…” but I could tell they had already muted my screen and written me off like a lost tourist from Texas.

Nonna was not playing around. The class was fast and furious. I thought I had done all of the necessary prep, but Nonna already had her pumpkin pureed and began rapidly crushing her soft potato with a blunt fork. My potato was still rather hard despite boiling in my Polly Pocket pot for an hour and my squash was still sitting there naked and uncut, like the pumpkin imposter it was. It was at this point I realized I was falling disastrously behind and would need to improvise. By improvise, I mean cheat. I titled my camera towards the ceiling and muted my mic so I could microwave the potato off screen and use a blender to turn the squash into puree. 

Every few minutes they ask you to show everyone your progress, like third grade art class. Every time I showed Nonna what I was making she gave me a disappointed, yet empathetic look; the way a guidance counsellor looks at a kid who is never getting into Harvard. They encouraged me to “keep going” because, well, I had already paid. I sensed they were already considering creating a subset class for idiots and my face would be on the digital marketing material.

Now we were moving onto the flour portion of the evening in which we rolled our dough using carefully measured increments of flour. This is when I realized I didn’t have any measuring cups. I started using my second wooden spoon to eyeball “one cup” and “two teaspoons.” I felt like a streaker who accidentally stumbled onto Wrigley Field during training day. 

“Make it sticky but not lumpy” Danny unhelpfully offered. Linda, already having rolled her dough perfectly, asked, “Is it time for nutmeg?” Nutmeg was an extra ingredient mentioned in passing by Nonna. Linda was dead to me. Meanwhile, Cynthia was busy rapidly recording notes and muttering something about “room temperature,” while Chuck and Jackie looked stressed and were engaging in a quiet but tense domestic dispute in their kitchen. 

Chuck and I remained the official delinquents throughout the dough process, hands battered and bruised, delaying the progress of the class. By the time the dough was ready to be sliced into gnocchi, there was dough everywhere. Danny told us to picture someone we hate while slicing, as Italian encouragement, I guess. Chuck picked up the pace, no doubt thinking of Jackie who was telling him to “go faster” in the background. 

I wouldn’t recommend this experience for couples. Try Pilates in the park or pottery instead.

Meanwhile, Nonna had decided, after slicing her gnocchi at the pace of an Olympic sprinter, to start dancing. As we watched Nonna work a rolling pin like I’ve only seen true professionals work the pole, the class collectively had a breakthrough moment. You know a breakthrough moment when it hits you. It’s the moment when you’ve been afraid to do something, and start doing that something, and are certain you are failing at it, but suddenly realize you’re doing it anyways. The doubt - and the dough - says, “You can’t do this,” and the breakthrough moment says, “Watch me.” 

I could feel the mood of the group lift. We were having fun. We were bonding. Linda took off her hat. Jackie gave Chuck a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. Suddenly, we were cooking. Suddenly, we were making god damn pasta from scratch. 

When asked to present our little raw dough bows, I proudly tipped my one remaining plate towards the camera. “Samantha I was worried when I first heard about the pumpkin… and saw your dough… and heard you speak…and watched you use a knife…but my God! It’s not bad,” Danny said. Nonna nodded proudly, my Italian fairy godmother after all. 

We seasoned the gnocchi with a simple sauce made from shaved parmesan, cracked black pepper, and pasta water. I can say “simple sauce” now because I earned it. And though my gnocchi dish was undercooked, I’ll never tell Nonna. I love an underdog story too much.

To try or not to try?  Try. Not for the faint of heart or wrist, but if you bring your A-game and blender, it’s worth the virtual trip to Italy.

Rent For Date Night 

Cinta The Label Rosie Cream Cardigan from £15


Written by Sam Ellis