The smell of onion and garlic pervades the air as chef Massimo Mele is joined in the kitchen by his mother Maria. As Nonna Maria stirs the seasoned vegetables in the pot, she wags her finger at Massimo, admonishing him for adding too much salt.
The friendly family dynamic between Mele and his mother brings a smile to the face of guests during the inaugural Festival of Nonna - a celebration of la cucina della nonna (grandmother's kitchen) - in Sydney last year.
"My mum is extremely bossy in the kitchen. Mum likes to cook everything on a gentle flame… she also gets angry when I turn the heat up too high and when I make a mess and she thinks I'm too heavy-handed with the seasoning," laughs Mele, who is set to open a new flagship Salt Meats Cheese restaurant in Sydney’s Circular Quay.
Massimo and his mamma will again take centre stage at this year's festival, which will feature four of Australia's leading Italian chefs and their mothers at events in Sydney and Melbourne. A series of 10 lunches and dinners, starting on Sunday 8 October, will each include a demonstration by the featured chef and his mother, and a three-course family dinner. Each pair will show how to make the nonna's favourite pasta sauce, which will also feature on the menu. As well as Mele, the line-up includes Luca Ciano & his mother Annita; Andrew Cijbej & his mother Valerie; and Eugenio Maiale and his mother Maria.
"The highlight of the first Festival of Nonna [held in Sydney last year] was the fact that mum took over the master class. When it came to the making of the pasta, she elbowed me out of the way. She doesn't try to be funny, she just is. But she's also in her element up on stage, which surprised me," Mele tells SBS.
Mele agrees "the dynamic between mother and son" was integral to the success of last year's inaugural Festival of Nonna, where he shared anecdotes about his Italian upbringing.
"When I moved out of home, I used to go to the post office to collect a parcel from home and what I'd find was a huge Styrofoam box full of pasta, sauces and meatballs," Mele told the 800-strong crowd last year.
Geraldine Lubrano of Sandhurst Fine Foods, one of the hosts of the events along with her son Mimmo, says the main purpose of the sagra (food festival) is to showcase the influence nonnas have had on Italian cuisine.
She says the Festival of Nonna meals are designed to replicate Sunday lunch at nonna's place, with guests made to feel like extended family.
A celebration of heritage
Mele says he's most looking forward to celebrating his culinary heritage, which is inextricably linked to la cucina della nonna (nonna's kitchen). "At the end of the day, I have a heavy Australian accent so the food I cook is my interpretation of grassroots Italian food, which is what I want people to experience," says Mele.
"Nonnas in Italy are at the heart of everything. Nonnas have a recipe for everything. When someone is sick, when someone is sad, when someone is pregnant. I tend to be quite romantic about it… but I really believe Italian food is all about cooking with love," he says.
Mele says both his mum and Nonna are very intuitive cooks, which is not something that can be taught during a masterclass. However, he says he hopes those in attendance get an appreciation of the generosity that is as much a part of his Italian heritage as the dishes themselves.
"My mum and Nonna grew up in Naples and for them, cooking is very slow and gentle. It's not a chaotic experience. It's a ritual that is cemented in the daily routine. I want to help others develop an understanding of Italian food, which, at its heart, is simple, honest and seasonal," he says.
A generosity of spirit
Mele says two of the first recipes he remembers his mum teaching him to cook were pepperonata (roasted peppers) and paccheri pasta (a pasta bake using leftovers), both of which he says deserve to be in the spotlight.
In addition to the Melbourne gatherings at The Craft & Co in Melbourne's Collingwood, which include three dinners and one lunch, the Sydney branch of the festival – to be held at 107 Projects -- will include five dinners and one lunch. Joining the Lubranos will be Luca Ciano and his mother Annita, Andew Cijbej (of Vini and Berta) and mum Valerie, and Eugenio Maiale of a Tavola and mother Maria.
Luca Ciano's mother Annita Zaccheo is flying in from Italy to attend both the Sydney and Melbourne events, where she will recreate time-honoured recipes such as risotto alla Milanese and gnocchi al ragu, perfected by her own Nonna. Ciano agrees a highlight of the Festival of Nonna will be presenting a masterclass alongside his mum and sharing family recipes that have been passed down for generations.
Speaking from her home in northern Italy, his mother - now a nonna (grandmother) herself – tells SBS she hopes guests see the beautiful connection cooking has brought to her relationship with her son. "I'm so proud of Luca and even prouder to be able to enjoy these moments with him in the kitchen," she says.
Zaccheo says the first recipe she remembers cooking at her own nonna's side was baked ricotta cheesecake. She advises those who want to cook like a nonna to be "careful, patient, precise and generous".
Keep it simple
Ciano acknowledges how much his mum inspired his career and says he reveres her recipes, some of which are included in his book Luca's Seasonal Journey. He says the number one bit of advice he received from his mum and nonna was to "keep it simple".
"Mum has had a huge influence on me in the kitchen, which has translated into my personal cooking style, which is about using simplicity and seasonal ingredients," says Ciano. Ciano describes Italian food as "comfort food at 110 per cent". He says the one recipe he cannot replicate of his mum's is her torta di mele (apple spice cake).
"This cake is a kind of cucina povera. I went as far as featuring it in my own cookbook but no matter how hard I try, I cannot get it as fluffy, soft and light as the one mum makes," says Ciano.
But whatever you make, he says, the best way to cook like a nonna is "to cook with love".
Melbourne events will be held between October 8-10 and Sydney events October 22-26; Festivalofnonna.eventbrite.com.au
This is Mum’s signature tiramisu, with the perfect ratio of cream to biscuits, and just enough coffee to make the biscuits soft but never stodgy. Her mascarpone cream, however heretical, is quite remarkable.