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Cooking with Nonna: a three-course Italian meal guide

When it comes to making a meal that is full of love (and flavour), nobody can beat Nonna

I may have high cholesterol, but I can’t help but forget it when I visit my nonna.

My grandmother, whom I call my nonna, doesn’t just have a knack for stirring up the tastiest recipes. She also reminds me where my culture stems from — a rich Italian background that embraces life despite a history of war and hardship. 

My nonna stands four foot and eleven inches with grey hair and purple veins on her arms like racetracks. She was undernourished from the Second World War and has a grade two education, and although she is older now with little knowledge of the English language, her spirit is spry and active. She also understands the immense sacrifice it takes to care for her family. 

Growing up, I would race to my Nonna’s house after school knowing that a plate of chicken cutlets was waiting for me at the kitchen table. Even if I was not hungry I would consume every bit of food because if anyone knows nonna, they know that cleaning off your plate is one of the best ways to her heart. 

I have had the joy of growing up with some staple Italian dishes. Each of these meals that I have listed are comforting and delicious dishes that I never get tired of eating, except maybe the salad.  Hopefully they will give you some inspiration for your next dinner. 

First Course


If you like pasta, then you’ll love pastina. This is a warming soup made from chicken broth and miniature pasta noodles, also known as pastina. My mom has jars full of broth she saves for making for this soup, which is a day-long process of boiling a big chicken with fresh ingredients like basil, carrots, and celery. This simple soup is perfect for a chilly snow day. 

Spinach Pizza 

This pizza is made with fresh dough that is beat and rolled thin, then topped with minimalist toppings like parmesan, mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, and spinach leaves. It is also tasty with a freshly sliced tomato on top, which we grow in our backyard.

The spinach mixed with the other ingredients will make you fall in love with these leafy greens, but make sure to save some for your pet!

Maria Besko (Left) My best friend Ayesha and I enjoying pizza and pasta at my house, which is the only reason why she is friends with me. (Right) Me serving spinach pizza to my dog.

Salad with Olive Oil and Vinaigrette  

The romance between vinaigrette and olive oil outlasts every marriage on earth, including Brad and Angelina. I am usually not a fan of salads unless they have meat in them, but this combination is a classic in every Mediterranean household.

The best part about salad with olive oil and vinaigrette is absorbing the leftover dressing with a loaf of toasted bread once the salad leaves are gone. Nothing beats the zesty zing of the vinaigrette mixed with the nutty flavour of the olive oil.

The texture of the salad is also important and equally satisfying. If you’re looking for a good crunch I recommend using romaine lettuce. You can also add some sweetness with chopped carrots.

Sicilian Rice Balls (Arancini di Riso)

Southern Italy is known for these fried risotto snacks, which are usually sold as street food. Arancini di Riso is made with risotto, parsley, garlic, basil, and parmesan cheese, all rolled into balls and fried in oil. This is a great snack that can be dipped in marinara sauce. 

Second Course

Gnocchi and Pasta

Gnocchi are small, thick, dough-like dumplings, usually made from wheat flour or potato. My nonna cooks them in olive oil, garlic, and parsley, topped off with a handful of parmesan for that little somethin’ somethin’. This combination of olive oil and garlic is called Pasta di Aglio e Olio. 

There are other combinations of pastas made with seafood, such as shrimp and linguini. This type of pasta is called Frutti di Mare, which translates to “Fruit of the Sea.” My Dad emphasizes that a nutritious meal should include some type of starch, protein, and vegetable, which is something I keep in mind when making my own meals — only I would add alcohol to that list. 

Maria Besko (Left) Sicilian rice balls. (Right) Frutti di Mare with a side of seasoned sweet yams.

Chicken Cutlets

My nonna uses a meat tenderiser not only to discipline her grandkids, i.e. me, but also to pound thick chicken breasts into tender, ready-to-eat pieces. She coats them with an assortment of fine bread crumbs, rosemary, and Italian spices . . . McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets could never!


Italian Ribbons (Cioffe)  

My nonna makes these fried ribbons every Christmas and Easter. The batter for these treats includes a shot of Millefiori liqueur and they are topped with colourful sprinkles.

To make the ribbon shape you have to create a slit in the dough and put one end through the other. No one ribbon looks the same, but they all taste perfect. The ribbons are also not too sweet and have a perfect doughy texture. 


I took the liberty of making these myself with the help of “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro’s recipe book Baking with the Boss. Spinelli in Edmonton makes these sweets as well.

To make canoli, the dough needs to be rolled extremely thin and fried with a circular rod, and then injected with a mixture of ricotta, cinnamon, and sugar. Chocolate chips or pistachios make a good garnish for the ends. 

Maria Besko (Left) Cioffe, also known as Italian ribbons. (Right) Me with a plate of canoli.


Desserts are usually enjoyed with a latte or an espresso. The bitterness from the coffee and the sweetness from the desserts are heavenly. My mom often uses her Breville coffee machine to make coffee in the morning and evenings. This machine is loud enough that I don’t need an alarm clock to wake up, even on weekends. Thanks Mom! 

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