When chef and owner of the 400 Gradi Italian restaurants Johnny Di Francesco walked into his nonna’s house as a child, he was often greeted by the scent of her signature stuffed calamari. He remembers making the dish with her too – down to the specific pecorino cheese she used (never parmigiano) and the extra stuffing she would save to add to the sauce.
“Even now, when I walk into a restaurant and I smell a bit of calamari it resonates,” Di Francesco tells Broadsheet.
He’s not alone. Grandma’s cooking has a home in the childhood memory bank for lots of us – which is why Di Francesco is holding a competition to unearth the best recipes cooked by Melbourne’s nonnas (and nonnos, grans and pas too).
The Nom Your Non competition is open to all Victorian grandparents. Di Francesco will meet with a shortlist of finalists to watch them cook their signature recipe, learn the tricks to making it and listen to some of the stories behind each dish.
The best three dishes will feature in a temporary Piatti Dei Nonni (Grandparent’s dishes) menu at Gradi Crown throughout August, and the winning grandparents will be invited to celebrate with their family and friends for the launch of the new menu.
Di Francesco’s nonna Angela – creator of the aforementioned stuffed calamari and renowned knitter – might visit Gradi to try some of the dishes too. Aged 93, she still visits her grandson’s restaurants for the occasional meal.
“The most beautiful part about it is that she’s still independent. She’s still living at home, and she’s still in the kitchen cooking for family,” Di Francesco says. “I think 90 per cent of the time I’m with her we’re just laughing about stuff. When I look at my nonna I see her as a very strong lady, which is amazing at her age.”
Angela is from a small island off the coast of Sicily, where everything is grown or made locally. “Every family either has a vegie patch or a farm. Everything is made there – they don’t bring anything [from] off-site. Coming from an island, coming from a small town you’re forced to learn to cook well, because that’s what you do,” Di Francesco says when asked about Angela’s culinary skills. “You don’t go to restaurants.”
With a Sicilian grandmother on his mother’s side and a Neapolitan grandmother on his father’s side, older generations have shaped Di Francesco’s cooking style. As a result, he’s passionate about the history and traditions behind Melbourne’s food culture more broadly. “I can’t wait to meet the nonnas that are going to enter,” he says. “They are seriously the life of what’s been created here in Melbourne. They brought such tradition to this city and we should validate them.”
Nominate your nonna or nonno here before July 3.