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Nonna’s Piemonte Recipes

By April 26, 202318 Comments

In the earliest part of my childhood I spent a lot of time with my Nonna Titta. She was a pillar of my upbringing, and even though I was only 9 when she passed away, she left me with many memories and an indelible mark on my nature and individuality. I see a lot of her in myself today.

In particular, the memories I associate the most with Nonna are sensory. The taste of her gummy, black Allenbury candies stashed in a tin box at the bottom of her travel beauty case, the glint in her emerald green eyes while we played as ladies having tea, and mostly, the smells coming from the kitchen when she’d cook. 

Nonna Titta

Nonna cooked “by heart” but she also recorded her recipes in a handwritten recipe book, she did this mostly so my mother could continue her legacy. My sister and I still use that cooking manual to this day. Over the years the pages have become a beautiful map of splotches, scribbled notes and food stains. The cover of the book is still lined in padded green wool tartan. Nonna’s handwriting belongs to another century. Nonna Titta was born in Asti, Piemonte in the year 1895.

Giuditta – Titta for her friends and immediate family – was not your average granny. She told fairy tales, baked cakes and occasionally knitted; but in her youth she had been a talented, successful and beautiful theater actress. And with a childhood worthy of a novel. Born into a theater family, she began touring around the world with the Ermete Zacconi theater company along with her parents and brothers from when she was old enough to stand. The company traveled on tour each summer to South America, performing mostly for Italian immigrants in theaters all over Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. My nonna Titta didn’t speak a word of English, but thanks to these annual 6-month tours, she was fluent in Spanish and grasped the rudiments of Portuguese.

Giuditta Rissone, my Nonna

Once the season would come to an end abroad, the company would pack the staging equipment and navigate the Atlantic on steamships back to Europe, just in time for winter in the northern hemisphere. Nonna Titta loved the summer, because for so many years of touring, she said, summer was never an option.

Later, as she grew into a teen and then into a young woman, her talent and sophisticated flair put her in the limelight. She soon became leading lady in many popular 1920s stage productions, and her repertoire spanned from the Greek classics, Shakespearean drama, to humorous, intelligent and ironic contemporary pieces. In 1930 she met my grandfather, whom she formed a company with, and eventually married seven years later. My mom was born the following year, and this gave Nonna the chance to finally retire from the theater scene at age 42. 

Despite her separation from my grandfather (divorce didn’t exist in Italy at the time), the hardships of WWII in Italy, and being a single mother in the 1950s, Nonna managed to keep it together, and starred in 25 films between 1933 and 1966. One of the last roles she played was in 1962, as Marcello Matroianni’s mother in the Fellini masterpiece 8 1/2.

nonna Titta and nonno vittorio

Nonna spoiled me like only grandparents can (and are allowed to). And she taught me to appreciate good food through her virtuoso cooking skills. Many of her recipes belonged to her native Piemonte. 

Visiting the region on a recent development trip, I rediscovered flavors of my childhood in every bite. It was like traveling back in time. Below I’ve listed a few of her showpieces, with tips extracted from her precious handwritten book. Here are my Nonna’s Piemonte recipes.

Vitello Tonnato

I don’t know why many make this typical Piemontese summer appetizer with mayonnaise, since the true recipe doesn’t call for it. A little bit complex but rarely a disappointment, the recipe for authentic vitello tonnato is a summer staple in our household.

vitello tonnato, one of nonna's recipes

Bagna Càuda

Nonna’s pièce de résistance was bagna càuda, a characteristic of her Piedmontese origins. This appetizer, whose name in dialect means “hot bath,” is an elevated hot dip: raw, boiled or roasted vegetables dunked in a manner similar to fondue in a heated blend of garlic, anchovies and olive oil. It is traditionally an autumn/winter recipe and must be eaten hot, as the name “càuda” suggests. For two cups of extra virgin olive oil, you’ll need 150 g of salted anchovies, one fourth cup of butter and six peeled cloves of garlic. Vampire infestation? No problem, make bagna càuda. But if on the other hand the copious amount of garlic is off putting, know that Nonna had a trick: she’d halve the quantity of olive oil and compensate with a cup of whole milk, poured in at the same time. Identical garlic quantity, and same exact procedure: the milk tames the punch of the garlic. Dipping materials can include crudité like yellow bell pepper sticks; cauliflower florets; Jerusalem artichokes; radishes; carrot sticks; cored artichokes; spring onions… you get my drift.

nonna's piemonte recipes: bagna cauda

Carne Cruda all’Albese

Don’t call it tartare. Even the most hardened carnivores find it sometimes hard to understand why in Italy veal is such a common meat staple, almost more so than beef. Among my Nonna’s Piemonte recipes, hailing specifically from Alba – land of prized white truffles – is carne cruda (raw meat) designed to be made with veal. In particular, the veal must be chopped with a very sharp knife, shortly before serving. No meat grinders please. Nonna would season with salt and cracked black pepper; dress with a thread of olive oil and some freshly squeezed lemon juice. Her trick was using the tines of a fork to pierce a clove of garlic and using that to toss the seasoned meat. If you’re lucky enough to have some white truffles standing by, shave them on the meat with profuse abandon. Serve immediately before the lemon “cooks” the meat. Pair with waterfalls of Barbera.

agnolotti from Piemonte

Agnolotti + Ragù Langarolo

Agnolotti are a type of square ravioli typical of the Piemonte region, made with thinly flattened pasta dough, folded over and stuffed with a ground meat and vegetable filling. Typically, agnolotti are made with leftover cooked meat. Typically, Piemontesi dress their agnolotti with ragù langarolo, which was originally a tomatoless meat sauce of chicken livers, crumbled sausage and finely ground porcini mushrooms. The modern recipe changed over the years to include ground veal instead of the offal. 

Agnolotti al plin · www.casamiatours.com

Agnolotti del Plin

Agnolotti del plin are part of my Nonna’s Piemonte recipes, but this pasta shape stuffed with braised meats, has specific peculiarities: small size and a precise shape. The name “plin” is a word that refers to how the dumplings are crafted. Although each family over the years has developed their own filling, the way to close the plin has never changed: small rectangular packages pinched closed. “Del plin” in dialect means ‘of the pinch.’ Dressing you ask? Melted butter and a generous dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano, or the above ragù langarolo work perfectly with the plin.

Nonna's Piemonte recipes: tajarin

Tajarin 

Tajarin (pronounced tah-yah-rén) are traditional egg and flour long-strand noodles made with no less than 40 yolks. Yes, you read that correctly. Thicker than angel hair, thinner than tagliatelle, accompanied by unique petals of white truffle, the noble tajarin noodles encapsulate Piemonte cuisine. Born in the fifteenth century, between Langhe and Monferrato as a rural holiday dish. According to chronicles one of the greatest admirers of this simple dish was King Vittorio Emanuele II who appreciated tajarin enriched by the traditional comodino, a very caloric sauce made with rosemary, sage, garlic, onion, parsley, butter, olive oil, celery, lard, carrot, entrails, mushrooms, tomato and red wine. Nowadays more delicate sauces bring out the elegance of tajarin, like melted butter and in place of cheese, grated hazelnuts – another regional delicacy. 

bollito misto cart, typical Piemonte fare

Bollito Misto & Bagnèt Vert

Elemental foods can greatly benefit from a condiment. Just think how a roasted shank of lamb can find an excellent partner in a velvety pomegranate sauce, or how piquant vinaigrette does justice to fresh garden greens, or even how much grilled zucchini and pumpkin love to bask in the simplicity of a bath of olive oil, fresh mint and balsamic vinegar. There are also a whole group of dishes that cannot be called complete without their supportive sauces and condiments. Among these is bollito misto. Rich, flavorful bollito misto is a traditional Northern Italian dish, particularly of Piemonte. Assorted cuts of boiled meat were a regular winter evening offering at home. Most Northern Italian restaurants have it on the menu during the colder months. The carrello dei bolliti (warmed cart) is wheeled out, pieces fished out from the broth and carved at the table. Sauces are almost as important as the different cuts of meat involved (usually seven, including beef, veal, cotechino (a type of sausage), and lingua (tongue). Nonna’s number one sauce for bollito misto was salsa verde: the keystone element of the complex carnivore ceremony. While the large chunks of meat cooked away in seasoned broth until tender enough to be eaten with a fork, Nonna made bagnèt vert (little green bath). She minced together boiled egg yolks, bunches of parsley, garlic, salted anchovies, stale bread soaked in red wine vinegar, mini cornichons and capers. She would do this with the mezzaluna (a beautiful “half moon” mincing tool), then slowly stirred in a thread of extra virgin olive oil while mixing with a wooden spoon. This would yield a fairly fluid, emerald green sauce. Best if prepared one day prior to serving.

Brasato al Barolo from Piemonte

Brasato al Barolo

Slow cooked beef braised in Barolo wine is as Piemontese as it gets. The trick is not using sub-par wine for this recipe. The better the wine, the better the final outcome. Also, you’ll need a little under 2 bottles. Prime quality of other ingredients is equally important. One 3-lb piece of beef suitable for braising (I used brisket but you can use sirloin and round, just pick a cut that’s not too lean, or it will be dry. Aromatics include garlic, onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, rosemary and cloves. The vehicle to extract flavor is – like for many other Italian recipes – extra virgin olive oil. Tie the meat with butcher’s twine so it will keep its shape, dredge it lightly with flour and sear it in a pot with the olive oil. Once well browned on all sides, add minced vegetables, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary and cloves. Season with salt and pepper, cover with a lid and simmer over a low flame. When the veg is translucent, pour in the wine to submerge the meat completely, and cook covered gently for about 2 hours, turning the roast occasionally. The meat will be so tender you will not need a knife. Serve with mashed potatoes or steaming polenta. And, of course, a bottle of Barolo.

cardoons

Gobbi al Gratin

Cardoons have won numerous ‘disdained vegetable’ championships. In posh foodie blogs and specialized magazines, the humble cardoon never gets mentioned. I read rhapsodies about the parsnip, odes to the beauty and versatility of the pomegranate, carousels around kale. Hardly ever do I read cardoon tangents. Cardi – in northern Italy they are called gobbi – look like very strange celery stalks, but with longer, dustier and thicker ribs. Cardoon bunches available here in Italy are about 24 to 36 inches long. They have a reputation for being difficult suckers to tackle, but once you figure out how to trim and cook them to tame their bitterness, it’s all good. The cardoon is related to the globe artichoke, and it has a similar flavor, as well as the capacity to stain your hands, just like when trimming raw artichokes. The first step to properly domesticating the cardi/gobbi is in how to trim them. Nonna did this by stripping off the thick filaments that run down the length of the ribs. She’d detach ribs from the stalk, hold at one end or the other, and give the “strings” an energetic zip. She worked quickly to avoid further oxidation. She’d then chop the stripped cardoon ribs into 2–inch chunks, and plunge in acidulated water. Once blanched she’d place them dovetailed in a generously buttered baking sheet, dusted with grated Parmigiano Reggiano, homemade bread crumbs and more flecks of butter on the surface. Do like Nonna: pop in the hot oven until a gorgeous crust forms.

Nonna's Piemonte recipes: bunet

Bunet

Leave room for dessert. Especially when the dessert is beguiling bunet. If there is one dessert of Piemonte, this is it. But it is no ordinary pudding. Bunet aka bonet looks like flan but the wobbly spoonfuls of this dessert are something else. Lunch or dinner in Piemonte cannot be considered such without a slice of bunet. Nonna rarely made it, but when she did, it was an epic event. The pudding has ancient origins, dating as far back as the 13th century. The flan is baked en bain marie in ramekins or a ring mold whose bottom is lined with a thick layer of water and sugar syrup that in the cooking process caramelizes.

gianduiotto from Piemonte

Gianduiotto

Not properly a recipe, but certainly a Piemonte specialty that was never missing from my Nonna’s pockets: deliciously melty chocolate. But not just any chocolate! During the wars of the Risorgimento that led to the unification of Italy, Napoleon’s embargos had reduced the import of luxury goods, including cocoa. Therefore Paul Caffarel decided to partially replace it with a paste made of hazelnuts, which Piemonte still to this day produces in large quantities and of very high quality. During the carnival celebrations of 1865 in Turin, confectioner Caffarel invented the first wrapped chocolate praline: enter the Gianduiotto, shaped like an upturned boat, melty and named in honor of Gianduia, the traditional Piemontese Commedia dell’Arte carnival mask.

bicerin

Bicerin

Bicerin is the sinful answer to all your coffee dreams. It’s the evolution of the eighteenth-century bavareisa, a drink that was all the rage at the time which was served in large glasses and was made of coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup. The bicerin ritual initially had the three ingredients served separately, but already in the 19th century they were brought together in the same glass and offered in three variations: pur e fiur (similar to modern day cappuccino), pur e barba (coffee and chocolate), ‘n poc ‘d tut (i.e. “a little bit of everything”), with all three ingredients layered one over the other. The latter formula was the most successful and ended up prevailing over the others. The beverage was later served in small glasses called bicerin (meaning ‘little glass’) which gave the beverage its nickname. Read more about the sweet side of Torino.

My nonna’s Piemonte recipes continue to inspire, keep memories alive and fill us with joy.

Email us if you’re curious to visit the region and taste these amazing dishes in their birthplace.

Nonna's Piemonte recipes

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