Pasta Grannies: traditional recipes by the Italian nonnas taking YouTube by storm

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There’s no better place to find hearty home cooking inspiration than Pasta Grannies, a new book filled with traditional recipes by Italy’s all-knowing nonnas.

Whether it’s your mum’s meatballs or your grandpa’s meringue, everyone has a family recipe that sits close to the heart. Over time, these signature dishes are lovingly passed down through the generations, until the secret sauce becomes dinner table tradition.

So when we heard that the kitchen secrets of Italy’s grandmothers would be recorded in a new cookbook, we knew we’d be treated to culinary wisdom like no other. Inspired by the hit YouTube channel of the same name, Vicky Bennison’s book Pasta Grannies brings together a collection of time-perfected pasta recipes by Italian nonnas that have never before been written down. 

From Leondina’s nettle tortelli and Anna’s cresc’tajat, to Emilia’s ‘guitar’ spaghetti with meatballs (all of which can be found in this exclusive extract), the nonnas’ know-how shows that truly authentic Italian cooking is entirely achievable. 

But Pasta Grannies isn’t just about delicious food: it also contains extraordinary stories. Complete with a liberal sprinkling of food memories, the book is a beautiful celebration of older women, their experiences, and the lost art of pasta-making

Read on for three beautiful recipes, courtesy of Bennison – and Pasta Grannies Anna, Leondina and Emilia. 

Anna’s Cresc’tajat with Beans

For 6 people

Anna lives in a converted watermill, now her B&B, where silk-makers used to come and wash their material. We visited her when the building was wreathed in wisteria flowers and with the background sounds of rushing water over pebbles and the shouts of paddling holiday makers enjoying National Liberation Day. 

Anna is a keen cook who enjoys sharing the traditional recipes of the Pesaro and Urbino area with her guests. Cresc’tajat (pronounced cresh-tie-et) is a fine example of frugal cooking. It used to be made with leftover polenta (cornmeal) and served with stewed wild greens or beans, which is what Anna made for us. Lardo is cured pork fat; if you can’t find it in an Italian deli, then use pancetta or mince up some unsmoked streaky bacon instead.

Cresc'tajat pasta with beans recipe
Anna's Cresc'tajat pasta with beans recipe

For the pasta

200g (7 oz) instant polenta (cornmeal)

100g (31/2 oz) 00 flour or plain (all-purpose) flour

For the beans

250g (9 oz) dried borlotti (cranberry) beans

1 carrot

1 celery stick

50g (2 oz) lardo or fatty pancetta

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, sliced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 meaty, top-quality fresh sausage, skin removed (but not discarded) and crumbled

200g (7 oz) passata (sieved tomatoes)

Salt

To serve

50g (2 oz) grated Pecorino

Extra-virgin olive oil

Pasta Grannies: Italian nonna Carmela and her friend
Pasta Grannies: Italian nonna Carmela and her friend

The day before you want to serve this dish, make the polenta according to the packet instructions. The polenta will stiffen up as it cools and, before using it, it should be cold and firm, but you should still be able to cut it with a fork. You want about 300g (10 oz) cooked weight.

Soak the beans for 8 hours or overnight – place them in a bowl and cover with enough water to submerge them by several centimetres (at least a couple of inches). Drain them and then simmer in a pan of water with the carrot and celery (this helps to flavour the broth) until the beans are cooked through. How long they take to cook will depend on the freshness of your beans, but it will be around 45 minutes - 1 hour. Keep them in their broth to one side while you make the pasta.

Mash the cooked polenta with the flour and then knead until smooth and you cannot see any streaks of flour. Divide the dough into 3 pieces and shape each piece into a patty. Keeping them well floured, roll them out as you would pastry – aim for about 2–3mm thick. Slice into broad strips (about 4cm/ 1 1/2 in wide), then cut along the strips on the diagonal to create small diamond shapes.

To prevent the pasta sticking together, Anna places the pieces in a single layer on a tray and pops them into the freezer until ready to cook.

Mince the lardo or pancetta by chopping it with a mezzaluna or a sharp, heavy knife. Heat it with the oil over a moderate heat and fry the onion until soft, which will take about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Fry the sausage meat in the onion mixture until browned, which will take another 5 minutes or so, and then pour in the passata along with a couple of ladles of the bean broth.

Season with salt and leave everything to simmer for a good 15 minutes. If you like, you can put the pork skin in at this stage to add some extra flavour. Strain the beans and add these to the tomato sauce to warm through.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add some salt, and return the water to the boil. Take your cresc’tajat from the freezer and tip them directly into the water. When they bob to the surface, they are ready. Using a sieve or slotted spoon, scoop the pasta from the water and stir it through the bean mixture. Serve immediately and let everyone sprinkle their own plates with cheese and drizzle with oil.

Pasta Grannies Recipe Book
Pasta Grannies at work

Leondina’s Nettle Tortelli

Makes about 90 tortelli, enough for 6–8 people

Leondina lives in the hills to the south of Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, on the way to Florence. When early morning mist swathes the valleys and obscures modern buildings, all one can see are pert hills and the occasional tiny church with a tall spire on top. It looks pretty much the same as it did 300 years ago. Leondina grew up here with her seven siblings. Her mum came from Abruzzo, so Leondina loved spaghetti al pomodoro as a child. “We used to make tagliatelle, but of course we used fewer eggs because we were poorer then.”

Now, for her family on Sundays, she makes pasta dishes like cannelloni filled with ricotta and ham and dressed with béchamel sauce and a little bit of ragù. “The success of tortelli d’ortica,” says Leondina, “depends on the quality of your ingredients. Usually I make my own ricotta; I like sheep’s milk ricotta for flavour and cow’s milk for texture – so I use a mixture. I always buy Parmigiano Reggiano that has been aged at least for 24 months for this dish.” 

Wear plastic gloves to pick your nettles – once cooked they no longer sting. Leondina doesn’t bother with protection though, she just grasps them firmly. The tortelli can be frozen successfully – cook them straight from the freezer.

nettle tortelli recipe
Pasta Grannies: Italian nonna Leondina making nettle tortelli

For the pasta

120g (4 oz) fresh nettles (or spinach)

3 eggs

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

400g (14 oz/31/3 cups) 00 flour or

Plain (all-purpose) flour

Semolina flour, for dusting

For the filling

500g (1 lb 2 oz) ricotta (sheep or cow’s or a 50/50 mixture), drained weight

150g (5 oz) nettles or spinach

125g (4 oz) grated Parmigiano Reggiano (preferably aged for 24 months)

Freshly grated nutmeg (to taste)

Salt

To serve

60g (2 oz) butter

18 sage leaves

Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Nettle tortelli pasta recipe
Pasta Grannies: The triangular nettle tortelli taking shape

First make your pasta. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, then blanch the nettles for 30 seconds. Scoop them out and drain them through a sieve, then rinse the leaves under cold water. Squeeze out the water. The resulting weight of the nettles should be 60g (2 oz). Put this in a blender with the eggs and oil and blitz together into a gloriously green liquid. It’s the colour of spring.

Make a mound of flour on your pasta board (or do this in a large bowl). Create a well in the middle and pour in the green liquid. Use your hands to bring everything together, then start kneading. Knead your dough for around 15 minutes, until it is completely smooth. Cover with a tea towel (or put it in a lidded bowl) and let it rest for 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.

Sheep’s milk ricotta has a tendency towards wateriness, so if you are using it, make sure to drain your ricotta in a sieve first. Blanch the nettles or spinach for the filling as you did for the pasta dough, squeezing the water out as thoroughly as possible.

It should weigh about 90g (3 oz) after squeezing. Chop it finely, then mix with the ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Grate in some nutmeg and add a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more of either if you think it needs it. Have a tray dusted with semolina at the ready.

Roll the dough out in batches to about 1–2mm thickness. Cut the dough into 6–7cm (21/2–23/4 in) squares, then put a walnut-sized blob of filling into the middle of each square. These tortelli are a triangle shape, so take one corner of the square and fold it over diagonally. Press the edges to seal it. (Leondina uses the edge of a ravioli stamp to do this.) Place each tortello on the tray and repeat until you have used up all of the filling.

To cook the tortelli, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil then gently plop in the tortelli. Cook them for 3–4 minutes, tasting one to check if they’re done. Meanwhile, in another pan, melt the butter then add the sage. Use a slotted spoon or sieve to lift the cooked pasta from the water and into the butter. Gently toss the pasta with the butter and sage, adding a few tablespoons of cheese to help emulsify everything. Serve immediately with more cheese on top, if you like.

Pasta Grannies Book
Pasta Grannies: Italian nonna Giuseppa making fingernail pasta

Emilia’s ‘Guitar’ Spaghetti with Tiny Meatballs

For 4–6 people

My husband and I were enjoying a few days exploring the wine regions of Abruzzo, when Alessia and her husband Fabrizio from Maple and Saffron tours contacted me about Fabrizio’s nonna, Emilia. “She can make spaghetti alla chitarra con pallottine,” they said, so, of course, this was too big a temptation. I found myself meeting Emilia – with my husband and friends in tow.

Emilia started cooking pasta for her family when she was about 10 years old. Pasta and beans was a family favourite. Spaghetti alla chitarra con pallottine was, and still is, a dish served up on high days and holiday – Emilia has made huge quantities for weddings over the years. A dish that gave her particular pleasure as a child was polenta and sausages. The polenta would be poured directly onto the table and the family would tuck in with their forks. This harks back to the days when folk could not afford crockery – and would have eaten the polenta with their fingers. The day we met was extremely hot. Emilia says on days like this, you may need to add an extra egg to your dough to keep it pliable and soft.

To make the pasta, you will need a chitarra, which means ‘guitar’ in Italian, which can be bought on the internet for around £30 ($40). Or you may have a spaghetti cutter attachment for your pasta maker. The cheapest financial outlay is a grooved spaghetti rolling pin. Emilia likes to use a grade 1 flour, which is difficult to find outside Italy. It’s about 9.5 per cent gluten and the ‘1’ refers to the relatively coarse grind. If you cannot track some down, then I suggest using your usual pasta flour mixed with 10 per cent stoneground wholemeal flour.

Guitar spaghetti with meatballs recipe
Pasta Grannies: Emilia making her specialty ‘guitar’ spaghetti

For the pasta

400g (14 oz/31/3 cups) soft wheat flour, grade 1 (see introduction)

4 eggs

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2g (1/2 teaspoon) salt

For the tomato sauce

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 celery stick, cut in half

2 carrots, halved

3 garlic cloves

100g (31/2 oz) slice of braising steak or veal

3 pork ribs

100ml (31/2 fl oz) white wine

1 teaspoon salt

1.5 kg (3 lb 5 oz) skinned, chopped fresh tomatoes (or very good-quality bottled tomatoes)

For the meatballs

500g (1 lb 2 oz) finely ground beef

1 egg, beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

A pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Nutmeg, freshly grated (to taste)

1 tablespoon grated Pecorino, plus extra

To serve (optional)

Extra-virgin olive oil, to fry the meatballs

Spaghetti alla chitarra recipe
Pasta Grannies: Emilia's ‘guitar’ spaghetti with tiny meatballs

First make the tomato sauce. Heat the oil in a casserole or heavy-bottomed saucepan and sauté the celery, carrots and garlic for 5 minutes. Add the meat and cook the pieces until golden. Deglaze the pan with the wine and let it reduce so you can no longer smell the alcohol evaporating. Remove the garlic, and add the salt and tomatoes. Cover with a lid and cook the sauce for at least 3 hours over a very low heat, stirring every so often when needed.

You may need to add a little water from time to time, but you are aiming for a thick sauce. Once it is cooked, strip the meat from the ribs and chop up the steak, then return the meat to the tomato sauce. Discard the bones and the whole vegetables. 

For the meatballs, mix everything together in a bowl – make sure it’s a good mush! Then wet your hands and roll chickpea-sized meatballs. This takes ages, so try and get the whole family involved. Fry them in batches, in olive oil, until they are just cooked – it will only take a few minutes. Give the pan a good shake and stir them with a spatula so they brown on all sides and don’t stick to the pan. Place them on kitchen paper while you cook the rest. Drain off any excess oil at the end.

Mix the tomato sauce with the meatballs, but reserve a few meatballs to scatter over each serving. This mixture can now be put to one side and kept warm – or chill it for future use. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.

To make the pasta, mix the ingredients together and knead the dough until it is smooth and homogenous. It will take about 10 minutes. Cover the dough and leave it to rest for at least 30 minutes. Roll it out into a sfoglia which is about 3mm thick. Cut the dough into broad slices which fit your chitarra and lay one at a time along the narrow set of strings. Using a rolling pin, push hard down and along the pasta. You may need to strum the strings to loosen the pasta strands. Keep them well floured while you work your way through the dough strips.

Make sure the tomato and meatball mixture is hot and bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Cook the spaghetti strands for 5 minutes or so. To serve, layer the pasta with the sauce, sprinkle the reserved meatballs over, along with some grated Pecorino, if you like.

Pasta Grannies: Italian nonna Rosetta and her granddaughter making trofie pasta

Extracted from Pasta Grannies: The Secrets of Italy’s Best Home Cooks by Vicky Bennison (£20, Hardie Grant), available to buy from 17 October.

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Photography: Emma Lee

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.