Nonna knows best when it comes to Italian cuisine. Here we find local dives and city secrets to the best bites in Italy. Pasta buff Vicky Bennison introduces us to the (extra)ordinary people behind Italy’s flavour-packed food culture…
Meet Ida, one of the foodloving nonne in Vicky Bennison’s book Pasta Grannies
Handmade Pasta – The Heart of Italian Cuisine
Ask an Italian what their favourite food is and they’ll most likely say their Nonna’s home cooking, according to food writer Vicky Bennison. Having spent years researching and interviewing for her passion project and new cookbook, Pasta Grannies, she’s been invited into the kitchen of many an Italian matriarch, and found that the craft of handmade pasta is at the heart of this much-adored cuisine. “What I loved about meeting these women was how often it turned into a party,” says Vicky. “When they make pasta, what unites them all is that they’re making the food for others. They are full of joy and interest.”
Get inspiration for nights in from Vicky Benniston's Pasta Grannies
From the tortellini and ravioli of northern Italy – packed with everything from sweet pumpkin purées to creamy ricotta and ground meat – to the firmer, thicker shapes of the south (made from durum wheat and water, and often coated with fresh veggie-packed sauces), Italy’s rich encyclopedia of pasta is varied and eclectic.
“I love the differences you can find,” says Vicky. “Sardinia has extraordinary twisted pasta called lorighittas, delicious in a sauce with chicken and tomatoes, and in Liguria there are nut pestos; you won’t find these anywhere else.”
The dishes from Lucia's dining table also feature in the book
Italian City Specialties
While most travellers will be hard-pressed to tuck into supper at a nonna’s own dining table, Italy’s crowd-drawing cities offer an authentic tasting menu for food-loving city breakers.
Stay at The Inn at the Spanish Steps, which overlooks Rome's famous staircase
Vicky describes fettuccine as the “beloved pasta of Rome”, so seek out a local dish while staying in the Eternal City. Maria Luisa and Mena, two of Vicky’s ‘pasta grannies’, live near Rome and recommend a sauce of lemons, artichokes and guanciale – succulent cured pork cheek.
In between meals, be sure to take in Florence's grand cathedral that dominates the city's skyline
In Florence, Vicky suggests hearty, simmering dishes. “Pappardelle with a venison or wild boar ragu is rich, autumnal and typical of the area. They also love their beans, fagioli, in Tuscany, often paired with pasta in a thick soup,” she says.
Meanwhile, in the stunning green valley of Mugello, Nonna Silvana makes the indulgent tortelli di Mugello – pasta stuffed with potato and cooked in a tomato and beef sauce.
Tortelli di Mugello is stuffed with potato and cooked in beef and tomato sauce
Day-trip from Florence to sample the region’s olive oils, truffles and mellow raviggiolo cheese. For a hands-on taste of Florence’s food scene, your Travel Consultant can enrol you on the Wanna Be Italiano cooking class. You’ll explore the city’s colourful food market with a local chef, before learning how to cook up a Tuscan feast.
Heading to Venice? Hunt out bigoli con salsa: a dish of traditional thick spaghetti in an olive oil, onion and sardine sauce. The udon-like pasta is often served with a sumptuous duck ragu, too.
Eat Like a Local
For a light bite, finger foods called cicchetti are served in bacari bars all over the Veneto, and are a great way to mingle with the locals. Visit the best snacking spots on an Urban Adventures Cicchetti & Wine tour, starting at the beautiful Campo della Maddalena square – ask your Consultant to add it to your itinerary.
And for those craving a further taste of nonna-style cookery, Vicky has a tip: “Many restaurants will have a sfoglina – a home cook who is making pasta for the restaurant.” So keep your eyes peeled and you might just spot a nonna…