April 05, 2011
For Rossella Rago ’09C, Italian food is more than just
mouth-watering entrees and scrumptious desserts. It’s about a rich
cultural heritage, a way of remembering the small towns and
villages of Italy and uniting multiple generations of
Or, to use her words, “It’s all about family.”
This charismatic young alumna puts this philosophy into
practice in her weekly Internet series, Cooking with Nonna. In
each “webisode,” Rossella teaches viewers how to cook a traditional
homemade Italian meal with the help of Italian grandmothers,
including her very own nonna. Each installment of the series
features a different nonna and provides interviews and features on
what it was like for these women to grow up in America as
immigrants or first-generation Italian-Americans. It’s an endearing
concept that gives the show an authentic charm.
Always curious about Italian culture, Rossella graduated from St.
John’s with a B.A. in Italian Literature and was a dedicated member
of the Italian Cultural Society. Her love of her native culture
fueled her desire to create an Italian cooking show.
“We came up with the series when I was an undergraduate at St.
John’s,” Rossella said. “I had been watching a lot of cooking shows
at the time just for fun. So one day after dinner, my dad asked me
what I was planning to do for a career. I half-jokingly suggested,
‘Why not host an Italian cooking show?’ He thought about it and
replied, ‘You know, we can probably make that happen.’”
Rossella’s father took the idea seriously. He and Rossella began
developing the show in 2008, establishing the concept and hiring a
production company. The Cooking with Nonna website and series
launched in June 2009 and has grown a steady following ever since,
with close to 26,000 fans on Facebook alone.
The show’s premise came naturally to Rossella. She has always had a
strong relationship with her grandmother, made even stronger during
her time as a student at St. John’s. Her parents moved to New
Jersey when she was younger, so Rossella lived with her nonna in
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn during her years at St. John’s in order to
make her commute to campus easier.
“It was so much fun living with her,” Rossella said. “My
grandmother cooks every day, so I ate really well during college.
Talk about a freshman 15,” she joked. “Every day was all about
cooking, all about food, and my nonna made it seem so natural. In
my culture, all girls cook – you just can’t be Italian if you
In addition to profiling these interesting Italian grandmothers,
Cooking with Nonna also allows Rossella to address a serious
problem she’s found with most of today’s cooking shows:
“Cooking programs these days just don’t focus on real Italian
food,” she noted. “I try to provide a more authentic view of
Italian cuisine, focusing on the small villages and towns, all of
which have their own rich culture. A lot of people who travel to
Italy typically go to Rome, Florence and Venice. But our show goes
into the real Italy, the tiny towns where the majority of
immigrants actually came from. I want Cooking with Nonna to teach
viewers that there’s so much more to Italian cooking than just
chicken parm and spaghetti.”
Rossella’s parents immigrated to America from Mola di Bari, located
in Puglia at the heel of the Italian boot. Primarily a fishing
village, Mola di Bari is known for its Chicory and Penne with Fava
Beans – dishes that Rossella made sure to tackle in the very first
episode of Cooking with Nonna.
Adding to her impressive resume, Rossella has also starred in an
episode of Food Network’s 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, a
reality-based cooking competition. The show challenged Rossella to
turn a blank space into a restaurant in only 24 hours, forcing her
to develop and execute the décor, concept and dishes. Joined by her
mother and grandmother (calling themselves Team Nonna), Rossella
was victorious in the competition, making for one of the most
memorable shows in the series’ history.
“The Food Network episode was so much fun,” Rossella said. “We had
a screening of it at St. John’s this past fall as part of Italian
Heritage Month, and my mom and nonna came with me. Students and
professors watched the episode, and then we cooked the food from
the show for everyone to try. It was a great time.”
Rossella hopes to see Cooking with Nonna grow in the near future,
complete with books and television appearances. But regardless of
the show’s success, Rossella considers herself especially fortunate
for being able to work alongside her nonna and other Italian
“I interview these grandmothers in the show, and their stories are
truly incredible,” she said. “They’ve taught me a lot about being a
woman – primarily that even if you’re older, you still have so much
to offer to the world. You have no expiration date.”
Check out Cooking with Nonna online every week to learn authentic
Italian recipes straight from an Italian grandmother, or become a
fan of Rossella on Facebook.