Luke and Daniel Mancuso have been through hell. But it’s their journey back that makes them so remarkable.

In 2013, the Melbourne brothers lost their mother, Teresa, to an incomprehensible act of domestic violence committed by their father at the house she grew up in.

It was their neighbour, a yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”) called Nina, who sounded the alarm. “I’ll never forget the day,” Yiayia says, through glassy eyes. “I knew something was wrong. I called Teresa – no answer. I was shaking. I had to do something.”

Two years later, Luke and Daniel moved into the home – once their nonna’s – not without trepidation, but because it was something their mother always wanted for them.

“I can’t tell you how hard it was at the start,” Daniel says.

Luke adds: “Your mind’s racing, you hear a sound, you take the bins out late at night and you’re looking over your shoulder.”

But the presence of Yiayia, who’d known them since they were little, helped make the transition bearable, Daniel says. “Having a real grandmother figure living next door put our hearts at ease … She took us under her wing and said, ‘I’ll look after you.’”

Expressing love through food – as grandmothers, irrespective of culture, tend to do – she started hoisting home-cooked Greek meals to the boys over the back fence.

What was second nature for Yiayia, though, was too wholesome for the internet to handle. Especially during Covid times. The story has been shared far and wide since Luke and Daniel started documenting it on dedicated Instagram account @yiayianextdoor, which now has more than 70,000 followers. But its next chapter is a more tangible one.

The trio have distilled their food memories into a cookbook, Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia’s kitchen, and the true story of one woman’s incredible act of kindness.

It takes pride of place on the brothers’ kitchen table when Broadsheet visits on a drizzly autumn morning. Next to it: a plate of glossy, grilled red and green peppers – from the cookbook – and freshly baked bread, prepared by Yiayia ahead of time. (Luke insists I leave with a brown paper bag full of fresh peppers to grill at home myself.)

In the dining room, Luke, Daniel and Yiayia, apron firmly on, quip cheekily – not missing a beat. Like family. “Big celebrity over here!” Daniel says. “He’s lying, I’m not that famous,” she says, deadpan. There’s an easy love in the air, but you can tell it runs deep.

Their brown-brick home, on a leafy suburban thoroughfare in Melbourne’s north, isn’t lacking in old-school Italiana, right down to the original kitchen tiles. But they’ve made it their own. A letter board in the kitchen spells out: “It’s a beautiful day to be alive”.

The words to live by ring truer as the cookbook’s April 26 release date nears.

Punctuated by beautiful storytelling and imagery, the book runs the gamut of Yiayia’s recipe arsenal – from everyday dinners to special-occasion dishes, including comforting Greek classics like spanakopita, moussaka and baklava. But, Luke says, “The ones that hit home are the simple ones, because they’re the ones Yiayia cooked for us in the early days, like the chicken and rice. It brings you back to that first time.”

Not all recipes are Yiayia’s own, though. Some have been contributed by members of the Yiayia Next Door community. But perhaps most meaningful is the cannelloni, a dish the boys’ mum taught Yiayia how to make. While it’s only a version of the original, “We get to still eat one of mum’s home-cooked meals through Yiayia,” says Daniel. “It’s the best.” And a QR code takes you to a video tutorial, so Yiayia can show you how it’s done herself.

In the face of tragedy, the book is a triumph; to turn the worst thing to ever happen to you into such a show of resilience would leave any mother beaming with admiration. “She’d be telling everyone under the sun how proud she is. ‘Have you seen my boys’ cookbook, the articles, them on the TV?’ Not shutting up, I’d say,” Daniel says, his face lit up. “Even if they didn’t ask,” Luke adds, looking at his brother. “She lived for us.”

When it’s just Yiayia and I, she leans in, grazes my forearm and makes sure I understand: “She really was beautiful, their mum. She looks after us from up there.”

Online, Yiayia’s face is always obscured – by the fence, an emoji or crafty camerawork – to protect her privacy. In one way, it’s a shame; if only you could see the unadulterated joy in the way she scrunches up her face as she laughs. But being faceless means “everyone can see something they know in her”, says Daniel. “Whether they’ve passed away or are still here … We get so many comments saying, ‘She reminds me of my yiayia’, about her voice or her food or her laugh or her cheeky little jokes. They’ll always say something beautiful. They get to watch their yiayia if they can’t.”

Ultimately, this is a story about connection. First, between two grief-stricken boys and “the angel over the fence”. Then, between them and a burgeoning online community. And now for you and those you choose to reach out to or bring together, using these recipes as a conduit.

“If someone told me before Mum passed away that this is what I was going to go through, I don’t think I would’ve wanted to live in a world like this,” says Luke.

“But the thing Yiayia Next Door has taught me is if you have a good community around you, you can get through anything.”

Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia’s kitchen, and the true story of one woman’s incredible act of kindness, published by Plum, is available online for $36.99.

yiayianextdoor.com.au
@yiayianextdoor