Italy is pure heaven for foodies as each city and region has its own traditional specialities. From the delicious seafood cicchetti bar snacks in Venice, to the wood-fired pizzas of Naples and the mouthwatering cannoli cream cakes of Sicily, you’ll never go hungry. And the region of Emilia-Romagna, at the culinary heart of Italy, is no different counting Parma’s prosciutto ham, Modena’s Balsamic Vinegar, Reggio-Emilia’s Parmesan cheese and Bologna’s tortellini amongst its gastronomic treasures. So when I had the chance to cook with a real-life Romagnola Nonna, or local granny, I jumped at the chance, eager to listen to her tales and to learn some traditional recipes. Here’s how to cook Romagnolo-style with Nonna Violante.
Nonna Violante, the legend
The first thing the very modest Nonna Violante will say to you is “Sono solo una Nonna”, I’m just a nana. But the truth is that she’s much more than that.
Violante is the linchpin of her family, as every good Grandma should be. And she’s also the heart and soul of their fourth generation family business running the small Hotel Eliseo in the family-friendly resort of Bellaria Igea Marina on the Adriatic Coast.
Over the years, Violante has shared her home and heart to become grandma to generations of Italian guests. So much so, that most return every year, bringing children, grandchildren and even a few great grandchildren now to this home away from home by the sea.
You’ll never feel more welcome than at Nonna Violante’s as everyone instantly becomes part of her family!
But guests don’t just keep coming back for Nonna Violante’s hugs – which she’s very good at giving, by the way! They come for her mouth-watering cooking at the hotel with recipes drawn from traditional Romagnolo cuisine.
Traditional Romagnolo Cuisine
So as we settle down for our cookery masterclass, Nonna Violante begins by explaining a little about Romagnolo cuisine.
Apart from its prosciutto and parmesan, Emilia-Romagna is also known for its egg and filled pastas including tagliatelle and tortellini. Local Romagnalo pasta specialities tend towards cucina povera, or “poor cooking” dishes that used leftovers such as stale bread to eek out the family’s food during the winter or lean periods. And Nonna Violante starts by showing us two typical Romagnolo pastas – strozzapreti and a little-known but delicious pasta called passatelli. We don our aprons and get stuck in!
Strozzapreti are made with a typical egg pasta recipe as most families have flour, salt and eggs in their pantry. And the dough is almost sunflower-yellow due to the freshness of the local eggs – they’re unlike anything we’ve seen before! And the pasta takes its rather colourful name – strozzapreti literally means strangle the priests – from the twisting hand action required to make them. Who knew cooking was quite so gruesome!
But despite Nonna Violante making it look simple, the gentle twisting technique through the palms of your hands takes a bit of mastering. None of us can quite do it, so Nonna Violante patiently demonstrates it several times – as only a grandma can! And finally we get the hang of it and finish our pasta twisting, just in time to send it off to the hotel kitchen to be served for lunch!
Strozzpreti are great with sauces as the twists capture all the juicy goodness so you get a good mouthful of pasta and sauce. Mmm-mmm!!
The next recipe is a little different and a true cucina povera classic in Romagna designed to use up old bread. Made from a mix of breadcrumbs, parmesan, eggs, lemon juice and pinch of nutmeg, passatelli are a bread noodle. Sounds strange, doesn’t it, but don’t judge it till you try it!
The dough is made in much the same way as ordinary pasta. Combine everything until it makes a smooth dough, rest in the fridge – the dough, not you! – and then the fun begins. And I hope you’re feeling strong because the next step involves a large potato masher or passatelli ferro press.
Pressing the bread-cheese dough through the press takes elbow grease but of course Nonna Violante makes it look like the easiest thing in the world! We cut the noodles off at around 5cm long and keep pressing until all done. The passatelli are then left to rest and firm up a little so they won’t disintegrate when cooked. And when you want to eat, all you need to do is drop the passatelli into pan of boiling chicken broth for a couple of minutes before serving them, broth and all, with a sprinkling of parmesan on top. They’re a delicious winter warmer or light lunch as the nutmeg and lemon give your mouth a little zing or can also be eaten dry with white truffle. De-li-cious!!
Traditional Romagnolo cooking lessons with Nonna Violante
Our sun-drenched lesson with Nonna Violante continues with tagliatelle ribbon pasta, piadina flat bread, cassoni flatbread pockets stuffed with spinach and a mouthwatering meat ragù to go with the strozzapreti pasta. The list goes on and on!
And yes, we do get to taste test everything coming away with full bellies, delighted to be taking a dozen Romagnolo new recipes home to try out on our families too. And you can do the same too as the fabulous Nonna Violante holds weekly cookery classes on a Thursday throughout May and September. Now that is what I call a real holiday souvenir and one that will last us a lifetime!
Is your mouth watering yet?
So are your tastebuds tingling yet? If you’re looking for something off the beaten track and a truly authentic Romagnolo experience, Bellaria Igea Marina is the place for you. You’ll get a real taste of Emilia-Romagna cuisine, eating how the locals eat. And by the end you’ll really understand why Romagnoli people are famous throughout Italy for their hospitality as Nonna Violante is the epitomy of what Romagna stands for. Warm and open-hearted, a legend in her own lifetime and loved by everyone, I just wish she’d adopt me so I could sit at her elbow and listen to her tales as she teaches another generation how to cook Romagnolo style. Leave me a comment with your favourite Italian recipes and in the meantime Grazie mille Nonna, ti voglio bene!
Nonna Violante’s cookery classes run every Thursday during May and September. There is a maximum of 10 places, so make sure you book early to meet this legendary lady!
BTW If you’re travelling with a family, why not base yourself in Bellaria Igea Marina so you can all enjoy the wonderful shallow, sandy, family-friendly beaches and explore the region too along with your cookery lesson. Recommended hotels from the Associazione di Piccoli Alberghi di Qualità include Hotel Eliseo, Hotel Cannes, Hotel San Salvador and Hotel Daniel.
More posts on this great region will follow over the next few months so make sure you follow our Loving Romagna series for updates and ideas!
Note : I was a guest of #LovingRomagna on a tour organized by Maria Regina Rubinetti of the Hotel Eliseo in Bellaria Igea Marina. I stayed with brother and sister Ettore and Dianella at their family-run Hotel Cannes, just up the coast. All opinions are my own.
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