By John Deike, Editor, La Nostra Voce
Italian Sons and Daughters of America recently caught up with Brooklyn’s own Rossella Rago, a celebrity chef, author and social media influencer who has deftly promoted old school Italian cooking traditions using new age digital platforms.
Immersed in her culture, Rossella speaks Italian fluently, she has traveled through the old country extensively and today she’s shuffling around the U.S. shooting the ISDA-sponsored docu-series Greetings From Italian America, which explores the Italian side of America one Little Italy at a time.
Every day, Rossella lives out the ISDA mission of promoting and preserving the Italian American culture and she just released her new cookbook, Cooking with Nonna: Sunday Dinners with La Famiglia.
 
Q: Rossella, let’s start at the beginning (literally): where are your Italian family members from and when did they emigrate to America?
A: My entire family emigrated from a small fishing village off the coast of Puglia called Mola di Bari. My father arrived in America in 1969 when he was 14. My mother stayed in Italy until she was 20, but then joined my Nonna and my uncle in 1978 who had already been living here since 1964. My parents actually met in Brooklyn because the entire Molese community had formed a sort of microcosm between the neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Bensonhurst. Everyone attended mass at St. Stephen’s Church on Hicks Street. Every family belonged to at least one of the Mola di Bari cultural clubs back then, so everyone knew one another.
 
 
Q: After all these years, your family still calls NYC home. How did Brooklyn shape your upbringing? 
A: I always credit being from Brooklyn in shaping my identity. But the more I think about it, I believe that it’s being an Italian-American from Brooklyn that made me who I am and instilled an exceptional work ethic and pride in my heritage. I was so fortunate to grow up in what I believe was the Golden Age of Bensonhurst in the very late 1980s and early 1990s. A time when kids still played on the streets ’til dark while trusted neighbors (many of them nonne) watched us from stoops. On Sundays the aroma of everyone’s sauce permeated the avenues and if you ran into someone while shopping on 18th avenue, they’d invite you over for coffee and sambuca after Sunday dinner. I’m old enough to remember old school brooklyn dinner dances that were held in church gymnasiums in their early days. I’d watch my parents get ready like they were attending the Oscars. There were always ceremonies with pomp and circumstance and plaques and posed photos and trays of baked ziti at every table heated up by sterno warming trays. All the parents would dance the tarantella until midnight while all the kids played together before falling asleep on piled up fur coats. The whole neighborhood was like a big Italian family back then. That’s the Brooklyn that raised me.
 
Q: Did the storied borough play a role in your decision to become a celebrity chef and social media influencer?
A: You know, it’s funny. I suppose in the very beginning it didn’t. It’s sort of only been really cool and exotic to be from Brooklyn for the past decade, or so. At the inception of Cooking With Nonna there was no one out there really like me. It was very much the dawn of the YouTube content creation era. If there were people out there making cooking videos they were most likely trained chefs or owned restaurants. They weren’t 22-year-olds cooking in a basement in Brooklyn with Italian grandmothers. They certainly didn’t have strong accents. I remember so many managers and agents telling me that no one would ever want to buy or watch the MonaLisa Vito cooking show. So for years I tried really hard to water down my accent and appear more “medigan,” if you will. A little more vanilla. No red nails. Tone down the sass. I was actually pitched to major networks more times than I can count, but nothing would ever materialize. One day I just had enough. And I swore I’d never try to hide my voice or my personality ever again. Because Italian girls from Brooklyn are who we are. And now everyone wishes they were us.
 
 
Q: You’ve amassed nearly a million followers on Facebook and Instagram who you engage with on a daily basis. What’s your favorite part about connecting with so many Italian Americans?
A: I think it’s realizing that we really all have the same story. My Nonna Romana always says “siamo tutti fatti dalla stessa pasta” we are all made from the same dough. As Italian Americans we can all be in different places and have different upbringings, but once we start talking about our heritage there’s such a strong connection that unites us. Getting to see so many people who are so passionate and nostalgic about their grandmothers and the beautiful memories that inspire this larger conversation about culture and traditions always gets me.
 
Q: Your grandmother and culinary mentor, Nonna Romana, recently required emergency brain surgery. She has miraculously bounced back, and she looks better than ever. What did the experience teach you about the value of family and faith? 
A: First off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least try and thank the thousands of people that prayed for Nonna to get well. My family and I were absolutely floored by the outpouring of love and support. Her recovery was nothing short of a miracle and after this experience I fully believe that not only saints grant miracles, ordinary people coming together can make so much happen too.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Nonna being ill is to absolutely live in the moment and not take tomorrow for granted. There is simply never enough time with someone you love that much. Unfortunately, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. So I encourage everyone to live for today and spend as much time with your loved ones as possible. Ask them all the questions you have about your family and your origin story now. Because if you’re as lucky as I am, they’ll have answers for you.
 
Q: You and she just released Cooking with Nonna: Sunday Dinners with La Famiglia, what’s in store for your readers in this robust and immersive cookbook?
A: This book is a love letter to my Italian American upbringing and the wonderful Italian dishes that evolved here as a result of the brand new culinary landscape and the abbondanza that Italian immigrants found in America. I wanted to celebrate italian American cuisine and give people a roadmap to forge their own Sunday dinner traditions. The book includes 130 recipes and tells my own Nonna Romana’s story of immigration to two different countries.
Since the pandemic people are craving togetherness more than ever. And what better way to be together than over a big Sunday dinner?
 
 
 
A post shared by Rossella Rago CookingWithNonna (@rossellarago)

 
Q: You’ve been featured in The Washington Post and you’ve traveled the country with ISDA Vice Presidents Pat O’Boyle and John Viola shooting the viral docu-series Greetings From Italian America. What’s next for you and Nonna? 
A: Oh I’d love to write 10 more books about Nonne! They’re my passion! But I do think Nonna Romana has earned a well deserved break.
These days I’m really fortunate to have so many wonderful projects keeping me occupied. Between working on new and exciting products for my e-commerce website www.bottegadellanonna.com. Co-hosting The Italian American Podcast and filming the ISDA-sponsored show Greetings From Italian America with some of my best friends, I’m a busy gal! I wouldn’t have it any other way, though!
 
 
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By John Deike, Editor, La Nostra Voce
Nonna Romana and celebrity chef Rossella Rago during a recent photoshoot in NYC. (Photo courtesy of Rossella Rago)
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