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A Love Letter to Italian America: An Interview with Rossella Rago and the Release of Her Newest Cookbook

Hailing from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Rossella Rago has become a household name for Italian Americans by popularizing authentic Italian cuisine. She is best known for cooking alongside her maternal grandmother, Nonna Romana. Rossella’s love of food, family, and entertainment was her inspiration to launch the show, Cooking with Nonna. The show features Rossella and Nonna Romana making simple and delicious recipes rooted in generational storytelling. With an Instagram presence of over ninety-eight thousand followers, she indulges her audience with endless content of recipe videos as well as the occasional life advice with a side of mortadella. Rossella has written three cookbooks with her latest release called, Cooking with Nonna - Sunday Dinners with La famiglia. This new cookbook is an ode to her family’s story and the Italian American identity. Through beautiful photos, heartwarming stories, and traditional recipes, the cookbook captures the essence of who Rossella is and immerses all who read it in as a love letter to Italian America.  It’s a beautiful expression of how an Italian immigrant family blended their customs and traditions within their American community. As Nonna Romana would say, “Siamo tutti fatti della stessa pasta” (We’re all made from the same dough).

America Domani had the opportunity to sit down with Rossella and have a conversation about what it means to be Italian American, the inspiration behind her latest cookbook, and what she hopes for the future. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

America Domani: What does being Italian American mean to you?

Rossella Rago: I’m a first-generation Italian American from Brooklyn and my parents are from Mola di Bari, Puglia. Being Italian American is the main ingredient of my identity. I believe I grew up in the golden age of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I didn't speak English until I was 5 years old. Our neighborhood was predominantly Italian American - recent immigrants and their children as well. Sometimes, I felt too Italian for Americans and too American for Italians, which seemed to be a similar worldview with other first-generation kids. There was a unique understanding within the community I grew up with. There were Italian social clubs, church events, and processions where the community would gather and be amongst each other. It was a great time to grow up. There is magic in Italian America - we are from different parts of Italy but here, we bond together. 

AD: You are known for being a passionate and proud first-generation Italian American. What is your strategy behind sharing Italian culture?

RR: In 2009, I started Cooking with Nonna so I’ve been around for a while - I’m like a cockroach, I just survived. But, it took a long time to get to where I am now. When I first started, there was no one making food videos with their grandma. Refining my voice took a long time and being comfortable with who I am. Authenticity is the key to sharing content. You can only hide for so long and at a certain point, I needed to be myself - if people want to follow me, they will follow me. It’s nice to see that so many people are sharing Nonna content today. Inspired by me or not, now people are out there sharing this culture. I love that we can all have Instagram and TikTok as a think tank to see each other's traditions and have conversations around them. I learned that by being myself, more are like me than not. I learned you can’t overthink things and try to reinvent the wheel - do simple things that feel organic. I was so nervous to be an extra Italian American girl but I found way more success when I decided to be my full self.  

Rossella Rago

(Photo Credit: Evi Abeler)

AD: What are some of your earliest memories of cooking?

RR: Italian Americans strive for upward mobility - the house with the yard, etc. When I was 8 years old, my family moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey and I did not like it. There weren’t any Italians “like us”. I didn’t feel like anyone was like me. Every Friday, I would bargain with my parents so that my mom would take me on a bus to Port Authority in New York City and Nonna would pick me up. She would take me back to Brooklyn and I’d stay the whole weekend. The weekends were the BEST. What I remember the most was the food. Saturdays were baked Ziti days with my cousins at Nonna’s apartment. Sundays were always for the big Sunday dinner. On Sunday mornings, I would wake up to the smell of focaccia, like an alarm clock. The perfume of focaccia would fill my nostrils. 

AD: You’ve grown a large following and seem to constantly be doing different projects with your Nonna Romana. How do you keep up with everything? 

RR: It’s controlled chaos. It takes a village. I have a fantastic team behind me, mostly women. There are a lot of things to create. My team and I run an e-commerce business, La Bottega della Nonna, like “Italian American Amazon”. It’s nice to bring people products they are looking for and can’t get otherwise. I wrote 3 books in 6 years - it’s a great feeling. You have to be organized and plan. Some days you don’t get as much done as you want. We are so busy documenting our lives but we still need time to live. You cannot do this by yourself, in most cases. The reality is this is a difficult space and if it were easy everyone would be a huge success. It’s not for the faint of heart. It takes time to get good at it and it is important to have grace with yourself. You have to be patient, have thick skin and work very hard. It takes a lot of tenacity to last a long time. It’s taken a decade for people to respect what I do. You need support.  My father believed in my dream during the moments when I couldn't. My grandmother worked so hard so I could be a woman with choices in my life. 

rossella Rago

(Courtesy of Rossella Rago)

AD: Your store, La bottega della Nonna, is full of classic Italian products. Recently, you added a new line of Italian summer dresses. What was the inspiration behind this? 

RR: Until Covid, I would travel to Italy all the time. I used to lead 2 culinary tours there every summer. Whenever I was in Positano, I would see all of these beautiful dresses that I loved but they were very expensive. I decided I wanted to make affordable, fun, cool prints for dresses that represent our culture. When you put on the dresses, it puts you in this “Sofia Loren” mood. It makes you feel like you’re in Italy even if you’re not. It was a welcomed surprise when people started asking me about a dress I had worn in an Instagram post. A follower asked me if I could sell it and I said, I suppose I can! My followers bring me great ideas. I designed the entire Sofia dress and tried to design it with body inclusivity in mind. It’s so exciting to have a vision for something and bring it to life. It’s the fun part of what I get to do. 

AD: Your new cookbook “Cooking with Nonna - Sunday Dinners with La famiglia” is your latest cookbook to be released. What can readers expect from it?

RR: It’s a love letter to my Italian American upbringing. I wanted to tell a story about the evolution of Italian food in America and write about dishes that started in Italy and ended in America, maybe turning out a bit different. As Italian Americans, we are our own culture and have our own cuisine. It shouldn’t be compared to traditional food from Italy. It’s a reflection of our immigrant story and how our ancestors had to use different ingredients and work with what they had. I had to pivot from my previous cookbooks. Everything is so intentional in this one. All of the things you’ll see in the photos are vintage and I hope it reminds you of your own Nonna. I had the time and opportunity to sit down with my Nonna to ask her about all our family history, stories and recipes and write it all down. I talk about the importance of togetherness and how we can finally be together again after the pandemic. What better way to celebrate than a big Sunday dinner.

AD: This isn’t your first cookbook. What is the process of putting this all together and did you do anything differently than in your previous cookbooks? 

RR: Producing all 3 cookbooks were a different experience. I have written all 3 of my cookbooks myself. During the first cookbook, I wrote everything from the same booth sitting at a Panera that’s now closed in Brooklyn. In the first 2 cookbooks, I’d visit the different nonne and we’d test all of their recipes together that they wanted to submit for the books. I’d sit down and interview them. These would turn into full days filled with lunches and meeting their entire family. I’d then test the recipes myself and decide what would be included in the books. In testing by yourself, problems can arise. The first 2 books were very hard and I learned through doing. Testing recipes made me a better book and recipe writer, I wouldn’t trade the experience. You’re very connected to the book in that way. For my latest cookbook, the pandemic forced me to change how I was going to write it. My fairy godmother, Adriana Trigiani, gave me the best advice and I decided to write the book about my own nonna and the recipes I grew up with. I wanted it to read like a novel and it was challenging to write about my own family story. I decided to use a professional recipe tester. I ran the whole photoshoot for this cookbook. It was a big undertaking and we shot 65 dishes in 6 days. I worked with an incredible team. It was the most exhausting 6 days but I’ve never been more proud of a project. 

rossella rago, cake

(Courtesy of Rossella Rage)

AD: What’s the most challenging part about writing a cookbook?

RR: When the cookbooks are long, they are big and expensive. I want to do so much and put everything in there but you start to realize less can be more. I wish I could put a picture next to every recipe. Choosing the dishes that get photos is so hard because you can’t photograph every recipe. Picking a collection of recipes that flows is challenging. I want my recipes to tell a story. Because of the pandemic, the format of this specific book was forced to change. Just when you think you’ve figured something out there’s a new challenge. I was sad it had to change but excited to do this a different way, give people something unique and a glimpse into my nonna’s life. It was the perfect way for God to tell me how to honor my Nonna. 

AD: Where will your cookbook be distributed?

RR: Wherever books are sold, like Amazon or any bookstore. You can buy autographed copies of Cooking with Nonna: Sunday Dinners with La Famiglia on my website, www.cookingwithnonna.com

AD: What is the future for Rossella Rago and how do you hope your brand will grow?

RR: I want to do everything. I want to encompass this entire space because, why not? You don’t just have to be the girl who cooks anymore - you can be the girl who travels, gives advice, etc. There is no dream too big for me. I’d love to write some more books. I love the process and the energy when we put it out into the world. Turning the vision into a reality is so important to me. 

Click here to purchase "Cooking with Nonna: Sunday Dinners with La Famiglia" from Amazon today!

Arianna DiCicco

Arianna DiCicco is an educator and writer from California, born into an Italian American restaurant family with strong ties to her grandparents’ home in Abruzzo, Italy. She has lived in San Francisco, Rome and New York City where she’s made deep connections within the Italian communities and gained new perspectives about her own culture. With a Masters in International Education, Arianna has a love and passion for learning and educating others about Italian history & culture.


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