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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014

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In Dining

Rosella Rago is appearing at Festa Italiana July 21-22

Host of "Cooking with Nonna" on a mission to preserve recipes, heritage


When Rossella Rago was pursuing a bachelor's degree in Italian literature at St. John's University in New York, she wasn't exactly living on the typical dorm-room diet of ramen noodles and cafeteria tater-tots.

"I was living with my grandmother, and we cooked every single day together," said Rago, 25. "You know, when you're Italian and you're a girl, cooking isn't something extraordinary you do. It's kind of part of who you are and you take it for granted."

But the Brooklyn native soon realized that her traditional home-cooked feasts were not the norm for college kids.

"I realized that no, not everybody cooks – and if they do, it's microwaving something, reheating something, not cooking anything," she laughed. "I kind of realized that we Italians are an extraordinary people. I'm first-generation Italian-American and our ways are kind of this lost art that should really be preserved."

To that end, Rago and her family decided to bring traditional Italian recipes to the masses – via her online cooking show, Cooking with Nonna.

Milwaukeeans – Italian and non-Italian alike – will be able to witness Rago in action at Festa Italiana's Piggly Wiggly Cucina Showcase on Saturday, July 21 and Sunday, July 22. Rago will demonstrate traditional Italian recipes that are easy and fun.

Cooking with Nonna has seen great success since its first webisode aired in 2009 (there are currently 45 webisodes) and Rago has rocketed to culinary fame on a national level. A graduate of New York's Natural Gourmet Institute, she is the winner of the Food Network's "24-Hour Restaurant Battle: Battle Italiana."

And in true Italian fashion, none of it would be possible without her famiglia.

"I was studying literature and was going to be an Italian teacher, and one night my dad was like, 'Well, what do you really want to do with your life?' And I was like, "Ugh, I don't know…I should have a cooking show. We could call it Cooking With Nonna, there aren't any nonna shows,'" she recalled. "A week later he brought the web domain cookingwithnonna.com. He built an island in the kitchen that we cook on for the show."

She looked back. Her father Vito is now her manager, ("I call him my dad-ager") her grandmother often guest-stars on the show and her brother is her attorney. Her mother, who she affectionately dubs "my consigliere," assists her with special appearances.

Rago says her family is working with a production company on the possibility of having their own reality show.

"If you've ever met them, you know they belong on TV," she said. "Kind of Cake Boss meets Keeping up with the Kardashians. That's what we were thinking."

An accomplished actress since childhood, Rago has appeared in feature films like Confessions of a Shopaholic and 13 Going on 30, as well as the The Sopranos.

For Rago, food is intrinsically linked with heritage and family. She grew up spending her summers in her parents' hometown of Mola di Bari in the southern Italian region of Apulia. It is from this area that she says most of her recipes demonstrated at Festa Italian will come from.

"They're inspired by my grandmother's four sisters – we call them the four seasons – I always stayed at my aunt's villa during summers," she said. "We'll probably do a pasta with seafood and a cake with almond cream."

Cooking With Nonna, which has taken on a deeper meaning for her. She is determined to bring attention to the special relationship between women, food and families – and give credit to the unsung heroine of the kitchen, the Italian nonna.

"Our mission is to preserve the recipes that get lost in time," she said. "I get so many emails from people who say 'Oh my gosh, I had no idea, I love this recipe, I didn't know how to make it because my grandmother never wrote it down, never measured it, I thought it was going to be lost forever and then I found your website and now I can make it myself.' So we kind of take your memories and we measure everything and give it back to you in an accessible format."

To learn more about Rago and Cooking With Nonna, visit cookingwithnonna.com.


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