This 84-Year-Old Grandmother Serves Comfort and Community Through Livestreamed Cooking Classes

Nonna Nerina makes pasta from scratch

Nonna Nerina makes a small well in a pile of finely milled flour and expertly cracks in an egg. Her audience—five strangers watching from their own kitchens—copy her movements. In the past month, she and granddaughter Chiara Nicolanti’s cooking classes made the leap from an offline experience to online streaming—and it’s been their best revenue month yet. “We’re eating a lot of pasta,” says Chiara. From their small village in Italy, she and her grandmother invite people from all over the world into their kitchen to learn to make pasta from scratch. 

One of my first memories is of sneaking in the stairs to the kitchen to hear and smell her cooking pasta.

The intimate format, taught over Google Hangouts and hosting just a few students per class, facilitates bonds across borders. Most come for the cooking skills, Chiara says, but the connections people can make, even in isolation, are equally important. “At the end of the experience,” says Chiara, “I usually leave the cameras on, so people can have dinner with someone else.”

Reclaiming her roots and rekindling old recipes

Connection is at the heart of Nonna Live, and it was Chiara’s desire to reconnect with her cultural roots that became the catalyst for the business. Chiara grew up in Palombara Sabina, a small village situated 40 minutes northeast of Rome. “I spent all my childhood next to my grandmother,” she says. “One of my first memories is of sneaking in the stairs to the kitchen to hear and smell her cooking pasta.”

At 18, Chiara left home to pursue a career as a stage actor and travelled around the world. But when she became pregnant with her first child, she gave up acting and returned home. There, she discovered that her grandmother had been lonely since losing her husband a few years prior. So, as she had done many times as a child, Chiara bonded with her grandmother over food. “She showed me a world that was dying,” she says, “a world made of a community of women and handmade techniques.”

Close-up of a woman's hands making pasta from scratch
Nonna Nerina makes pasta the traditional way—and shares her skills with the world. (Maria Saggese)

Chiara started sharing Nonna Nerina’s story and cooking techniques through a blog before being approached to join Airbnb Experiences, a marketplace of activities hosted by locals around the world. In the past three years, Nonna Nerina’s classes have attracted travellers to an area that previously had not seen much tourism. Groups of up to 20 people would arrive by train to the village, take a walking tour, and learn authentic Italian cooking from the best: an 84-year-old grandmother raised on making things from scratch.

Nonna Nerina, the heart and heritage of Nonna Live, was born before the Second World War and spent her childhood working in the fields that surrounded her small village. She learned to read, but the majority of her education happened through working long, hard hours. But she has only fond memories of her early life. “When people ask her about her childhood, she says, ‘The war was outside my door, but inside was peace, always,’” Chiara says. Of the war, Nerina recalls her father’s singing voice—something she remembers more clearly than the sound of the bombs. 

Every grandma thinks that her pasta is the best in the world, obviously.

Nonna Nerina exclusively uses Old World techniques to make pasta, and has passed these skills down to her granddaughter. “In Italy, every region has its own way to make pasta,” says Chiara. “And every grandma thinks that her pasta is the best in the world, obviously.”

The friend turned business partner who shared a vision

Two and a half years ago, Chiara and Nonna Nerina hosted Brent Freeman at one of their in-person cooking experiences. Their families became fast friends. “He tried to steal my grandma,” Chiara jokes. Brent owns Stealth Venture Labs, a digital marketing incubator firm in San Francisco, and has been building ecommerce stores on Shopify for the past eight years. A few months ago, Brent and Chiara partnered up to talk about a new vision for Nonna Nerina’s experiences: virtual classes. “We wanted to launch this new way to travel without traveling,” says Chiara. The two began plans to take Nonna online. “It was obvious that this was going to work,” says Brent, “but it was just a matter of time.”

That time, it turns out, is now. In February, Italy became one of the first countries to report a surge in cases of COVID-19. The Italian government started limiting travel, placing some towns under quarantine, and cancelling large events. “[Chiara] went from having 10 or 20 tourists coming in every day to zero,” says Brent. Suddenly, the plan to move the business online was accelerated. “They’ve really had to very quickly pivot their mentality and how all this works.”

On a Saturday morning, I sat down, and in three hours, I built Nonna Live.

With Brent’s experience building online stores, he sprung into action in early March. “On a Saturday morning, I sat down,” he says, “and in three hours, I built Nonna Live.” 

Even before the pandemic hit hard in Italy, the country’s overall unemployment rate was relatively high, hovering around 10% for the past five years. Italy also reports one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the EU. “Now, with the crisis, everyone’s out of a job,” says Brent. “And they’re all trying to figure out how to adapt.”

Chiara and Brent adapted out of necessity, but the business is thriving under the new model. And it has not only secured income for Chiara’s family but has also created a way for others to do the same. “Chiara has become an economy for her little village,” says Brent. “This has opened up a gateway that is giving hope and inspiration to people here in quarantine.”

A family embracing change—gradually 

Nonna Nerina makes pasta while a camera crew sets up the shot
The 84-year-old Nonna Nerina adapts to the challenges of learning new technology. (Chiara Nicolanti)

COVID-19 hasn’t been the only challenge in adapting to online delivery. At first, Nonna Nerina was hosting most of the virtual classes and, at 84, she’s pretty set in her ways. “She is a strong spirit,” says Chiara. “She doesn’t listen to me. She goes her own way.” The technology was new to her grandmother and it took some time to help her understand that the people joining virtually could see and hear her.

From the 700-squarefoot apartment she shares with husband Enrico and two small children, Chiara is now hosting all of the classes due to the lockdown. When we spoke, our call was interrupted by poor internet connectivity and curious babies. But they make it work. “Fortunately, Enrico is an editor and audio/video guy,” says Brent. “He’s behind the scenes, furiously trying to figure it all out.” Thanks to the time zone, Chiara can host classes in the evenings when the children are asleep and the off-peak hour improves the internet connection.

Sometimes you have no time, you just have to go. And then you will adjust, trying to make it better and better.

Chiara was nervous about running classes solo without the expertise of her grandmother. She called her for advice about pasta making. “I asked her, ‘Grandma, how do I make the pasta?’ and she replied, ‘Oh, silly billy, you’ve been doing this with me since you were born,’” says Chiara. “In reality, yeah, that was true.”

Full plates and a bustling future ahead 

Brent says he and Chiara are still working out the kinks. The online classes have been sold out consistently since launch, and the two are trying to figure out how to serve more people. Central to their plan is empowering other village grandmothers to do the same. A lot of young people have lost their jobs, so there are grandmothers with children or grandchildren with time on their hands. “Another grandmother called me and told me, ‘My son lost his job,” she says. “I asked, ‘OK, does he speak English?’ So, I bought them cameras, and I will help them to make pasta together.”

They’re making other changes on the fly, revisiting the model constantly. “Sometimes you have no time, you just have to go,” says Chiara. “And then you will adjust, trying to make it better and better.”

Brent owes Nonna Live’s success to the charm of the hosts, but also to timing. Businesses that supply basic human needs—toilet paper, food, safety—fared well at the outset of the pandemic, but those offering a sense of belonging and community are now starting to see a lot of momentum. “People are going stir crazy in their homes,” he says. “How are we helping keep them sane? That’s what Chiara is providing.”

With a toddler balanced on her hip and Enrico adjusting the lighting behind the camera, Chiara ends our call ready to invite five more strangers into her home. “I just give my best every night,” says Chiara. “I share our history and let them experience a part of Italy, our family, and my grandma’s culinary secrets.”

Feature image by Brent Freeman