Rossella Rago is the high-energy host of her Cooking With Nonna web series on YouTube, which prompted a new cookbook of the same name.
By Gwen Donovan
If you haven’t heard of Rossella Rago, you will. This busy chef, author, YouTube star and television personality hosts an online cooking show with her grandmother, the popular food webisode series called Cooking with Nonna, which is also the name of her newly-released cookbook. Born into a family of culinary aficionados and food lovers, she happily shares her grandmother’s authentic Italian recipes with live and online audiences.
The decision to start a cooking show wasn’t immediately evident to Rago. “I was living with my grandmother and shared a bedroom with her while I was attending St. John’s University. I cooked with her every day, and I just took it for granted that’s what every family does. Everybody on our block in Bensonhurst did that.” Although she was in college, she was also becoming a star student in Nonna’s Brooklyn basement culinary school.
After graduating with a B.A. degree in Italian literature from St. John’s, she pursued a career in education. “Like most Italian girls from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, I was studying to become an Italian teacher,” Rago said. When teaching didn’t seem like the right fit, her father sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do with her life. She said she wanted to host a cooking show. Her father went out and bought the domain name for Cooking with Nonna and they began filming webisodes to post on YouTube.
“Ten years later, I am in a new niche career,” Rago laughs. “It takes ten years to be an overnight success.” She has built a powerful social media presence and, with the help of her manager father, she has a brand new cookbook. In fact, one of her 650,000 Facebook followers was a book editor who approached Rago about creating a cookbook. That led to Cooking With Nonna being published in early 2017.
“The Cooking With Nonna cookbook is like the love child of our YouTube series,” she explains. “It shows you how to make fresh pasta by hand, which is very accessible when you use a stand-up mixer. I love all the recipes in the book, which also has desserts. I just love cooking and entertaining.”
Collecting regional Italian recipes was a happy challenge for Rago. “Cooking with Nonna has 110 recipes submitted by 25 grandmothers who also share their life stories,” she said. “I wanted to include recipes from different regions of Italy, so it was like a treasure hunt to find them.” Some of the grandmothers are relatives or family friends, and all of them feel like movie stars when they go to book signings with Rago. “They are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and this is so exciting for them and for me. I have truly learned from them that women have no expiration date.”
Presenting live cooking demonstrations was completely different than filming them for her webisodes, Rago said. “It was a thrill for everyone once we started promoting the cookbook in front of an audience. When we do our show on the internet, you see the number of people who have viewed it, but not the actual people. When you see them in person and see how moved they are by the cooking, it’s a powerful moment.”
A second cookbook is already in the works, and this one will be all about holiday recipes. “It’s going to be a massive cookbook, there are so many traditional recipes, holidays are a big deal, and every Sunday is a holiday for Italian people.”
Summertime entertaining offers a chance to create lighter fare, Rago says, such as Sicilian style swordfish on the grill, grilled octopus, pan-roasted artichokes, pizza made in an outdoor oven, and a collection of specialty recipes from Botticelli. “Botticelli was an important part of my recipe-tasting process when I was putting the cookbook together. I had to test 100 recipes in 40 days, and they sent over all the olive oil, tomatoes and other ingredients to help me out.”
In addition to writing, promoting her book and making special appearances on shows like Good Morning America with assorted Nonnas, Rago also leads culinary tours in Italy. “It is a ton of fun. We come together as strangers and we leave as family. It is such a great experience to see all these people bond over food.” Rago usually organizes the tours in September and focuses on the region of Puglia in southern Italy, where her family is from originally. Describing what she calls “a true Italian experience,” the tour includes non-touristy events like a five-hour lunch complete with lots of red wine, viewing a religious procession at the Virgin Mary Festival, or a chat with a local fisherman, restaurant owner or villager.
While cooking is an integral part of Rago’s life and livelihood, she also gets genuine joy from sharing it with others. “When I give cooking demonstrations, I see people in the audience smiling and nodding their heads. They will come up to me later with tears in their eyes and say ‘My grandma made that dish the exact same way,’ so it’s a lot of nostalgia for them. And for me, it’s very meaningful work.”
You can purchase her fantastic cookbook here.