Kneading Dough with Nonna

Anthony Nocera remembers making pasta with his nonni

To experience The Gods of Strangers is to feel intimately connected to your culture and heritage. To see a story that is so intrinsically tied to a sense of place is to experience something that is once thrilling and instantly familiar. It’s tangible. It reminded me of home.

Nonna Ida and Nonna Cathy. Picture by Julian Cebo, originally for CityMag.

I said I didn’t want lemonade to my Nonna Ida once and she slapped me in the face and said, “why you no take? What happens when I die and there’s all this lemonata? Where will you get your lemonade after I die? MAH WHERE?”

I said I couldn’t possibly eat another piece of bread at my Nonna Cathy’s house. I’ve had enough, I said and she scoffed, “Moh, I go to the bakery, I buy loaves of bread and for what? So you can leave here hungry. Enough? There’s no such thing! Eat, EAT!” She didn’t hit me… but she looked like she wanted to.

My relationship with my nonna is equal parts love and fear. Fear mainly because of the recognition that they are both responsible for the threat of Type 2 diabetes that hangs over my family like a dark cloud. Fear of being swiftly slapped every now and then. I used to fear Nonna Ida because the sugar never dissolves when she makes an espresso, it just slowly settles at the bottom of the cup like sickly sweet mud and I thought she cast a spell on it. I used to fear Nonna Cathy because one time we were making pizzas and I was cutting up sausage for it and she told me not to use the big knife, Anthony, don’t use the big knife you’ll cut yourself and I ignored her and she was right. I did cut myself and thought she was like some sort of soothsayer. Neither of them are supernaturally gifted… If they were I’d probably be married with children and living in the flat out the back.

Nonni in the good kitchen. Picture by Julian Cebo, originally for CityMag.

I fear them now because I get the sense that my time with them is limited. I fear calling them sometimes because I don’t call as often as I should. They never mention it, they just asked me if I’ve eaten that day. I fear when they talk to me in Italian because I don’t understand enough. I fear them because I love them and one day they won’t be here and I wouldn’t have listened enough, learned enough or eaten enough… even though there’s no such thing.

This recipe for pasta isn’t one that my nonna taught me. Mainly because neither of them write these things down. But as I roll the pasta and knead the dough and feed it gently, gently, gently through the machine, I remember making it with them. On Nonna Cathy’s lime green counter top, in Nonna Ida’s second kitchen out the back where she does all her cooking instead of the good one in the main house. I haven’t made them pasta yet, probably out of fear. But I will, I think, eventually.

There’s no time for a good picture of pasta when it could be being eaten.

Basic Pasta Dough:

· 5–6 eggs (depending on their size)

· 450- 500 grams of flour (plus extra to dust)- you can use durum wheat flour which is technically designated pasta flour or you can just use regular plain flour. Whatever is on hand.

· 1 teaspoon of salt

Note: This is an estimate. My nonna told me to work by sight or to ‘justa look’. It means that my measurements probably aren’t 100% exact. It also means that I will, and you will, probably make too much pasta to be consumed in one sitting. Which is probably the point now that I think of it.


· Place your flour and salt in a mound on your benchtop or board and make a well in it.

· Crack all of your eggs into the middle of the well. Using the back of a wooden spoon or a fork, gently break up the yolks and gradually combine with the flour- be careful not to break the walls of the well, otherwise things get messy very quickly.

· Once you’ve got a loose dough, knead it with your hands until the dough comes together and is silky. If you feel like it’s too dry and needs a bit of help add a bit of water to the dough. You could also add a bit of oil but water feels more virtuous. You’ll also need to sprinkle the board with flour to prevent sticking throughout this process.

· Rest the dough for about 10–15 minutes once you’re happy with the consistency.

If using a pasta machine:

· Cut the dough into even portions (around four or five)

· Roll the dough through the pasta machine at the widest setting. Repeat this process until you get to the thinnest setting. Sprinkle with flour as needed throughout the rolling process. As the dough gets longer, feel free to cut it in half if it’s easier to manage. The end result won’t be as slurpable which is far less fun to eat… but probably more virtuous.

· Once thin enough, roll through the spaghetti or fettucine cutter and leave to dry on a past wrack or flat on a large floured surface.

If you don’t have a pasta machine (which is ‘no right’ according to my nonna) do this:

· Portion out the dough as above.

· Using a rolling pin (failing that, a wine bottle which isn’t at all virtuous) roll the pasta until it’s almost see-through.

· Sprinkle the pasta dough with flour and then roll into a cylinder like you would a swiss roll, being careful not to press too hard.

· Cut into uneven pieces for very rustic pappardelle style pasta

And finally, when you cook it make sure you cook it and enjoy it for people that you care about. Your nonna, or your kids, or your family or your friends that are probably family at this point. And as they eat, you need to look at them and think I love you.

Just like nonna would.

The Gods of Strangers will be in the Dunstan Playhouse from 14 November — 2 December. Get your tickets here.