Venetian Hours: Lost in Italy and Looking for a Nonna
If you live in Italy, you just have to have a nonna. Having just lost my “adopted” Italian grandmother, Nonna Margherita, in Switzerland, the time was right, and it happened in the most unlikely place: Bellaria-Igea, a seaside town in Romagna, known as the Italian region of land-and-sea because of its plentiful bounty of both fish and meat. As a result, the cuisine is varied and copious, playing on unending themes of the two. The hillsides beyond the shores are verdant and rolling, producing excellent wine, meat and cheese, while traditionally, the inhabitants by the seaside are fishermen.
Originally, Bellaria-Igea was a village of solely fishermen and their families. Their wives supplemented the family income by renting out rooms in their seaside cottages. While the men were fishing, the wives tended to the guests by cooking, cleaning and generally making them feel at home. Over the years, they added extra rooms and their homes became locande, or “inns,” and eventually pensioni, or “small hotels,” and this became a seaside resort. This is the story of the family of my new nonna, Nonna Violante.
My primary interest in going to Bellaria Igea was to take cooking classes with Nonna Violante. She taught us how to make some of the traditional dishes of this corner of Romagna, Italy’s green and pleasant land by the Adriatic Sea. I stayed in her family-run hotel, once a cottage, now the Hotel Eliseo. Age 79, she still runs the restaurant, along with her Sicilian sous-chefs — a married couple — and her daughter, Maria Bernadetta, who also looks after the hotel. It was my first introduction to eating a nonna‘s food from morning to night — Nonna Violante even made the jam, cake and breakfast bread. It was like being in my own grandmother’s home and being spoiled at every turn, with local farmers, producers, fishermen and bakers driving up on their bikes to deliver goods from their baskets, just as Nonna Violante does all her to-ing and fro-ing on her bike. Or it could have been a scene straight from the film Amarcord, Federico Fellini’s love letter to his native region (he was born and grew up a few miles down the coast in Rimini).
Hard work is not foreign to this family. Nonna Violante lost her husband, a winegrower, when he was 36 years of age, leaving her with five young children. She took in ironing, washing, anything she could, to get by. Her in-laws already owned this inn and wanted her to come work with them, but she had no one to look after her “babies.” She eventually started cooking in the restaurant, which served two or three meals a day to guests and some to outsiders, and her in-laws helped look after the children, making it a real family affair, which it remains today.
Nonna Violante is old school. Everything that comes out of her kitchen is homemade. I didn’t see a can of tomato sauce or anything less than fresh in my week-long stay. Every ribbon of pasta, every piece of bread, every sauce, all homemade. Here’s her recipe for passatelli in meat broth, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life, yet seemingly so simple. It is a typical, traditional dish of Romagna.
Blessings come in many ways. I caught a bad cold in sunny Bellaria-Igea, but Nonna Violante’s passatelli in brodo comforted me as perfectly as my mother’s chicken and dumpling soup. It was then I knew she was meant to be my new nonna.
Passatelli in meat broth – Passatelli in brodo
9 ounces or 250 g fresh bread crumbs
7 ounces or 200 g grated Parmesan
1/2 lemon, zested and chopped finely
5 large eggs
Meat broth for as many people as you’re serving soup, preferably homemade the day before
- Bring the broth to a boil.
- Combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, lemon zest and nutmeg on a flat working surface, making a well in the center.
- Break the eggs into the well.
- Knead until it forms a soft, granular dough.
- Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
- Place the dough in a passatelli press (see photo above) or a ricer or food mill with large holes.
- Use a wooden spoon to push the dough through the food mill or close the press, cutting it every 2 inches or 5 cm or so.
- Place the pasta into the boiling broth for a couple of minutes.
- Turn the heat off and let it rest for a minute.
- Serve piping hot.
Lungomare Pinzon, 130
47814 Bellaria Igea Marina
Telephone (39) 054 133 0413