Saturday, July 7, 2012

Everyone's a Little Italian: Interview with Rossella Rago and #Giveaway

Pin It Milwaukee is known as the City of Festivals for good reason.  In addition to the world's largest music festival, Summerfest, Milwaukee is also privileged to be the host of some of the world's best ethnic festivals.

One of the tastiest just happens to be Festa Italiana, coming up on July 19-22 (stay tuned below for a chance to win tickets).

Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Festa Italiana is the largest Italian event of its kind in America today. The festival, which started in 1976  for the purpose of reuniting an Italian community torn apart by urban renewal projects, was the first ethnic festival in Milwaukee.

In addition to great cultural exhibits, peppy Italian music, and plenty of delicious Italian food, this year's Festa will feature a great line-up of demonstrations by some of Milwaukee's best chefs, and a few celebrities, including TV chef and cookbook author, Nick Stellino.

Making her first ever appearance at Festa Italiana in Milwaukee, celebrity chef Rossella Rago, host of “Cooking with Nonna” will showcase her culinary skills Saturday, July 21 at 6:45 p.m. and Sunday, July 22 at 4:15 p.m.

Inspired by her love of food, her passion for entertaining, as well as her appreciation for her family and the Italian community, Rossella launched the “Cooking with Nonna” show in 2009. The online cooking show features recipes passed down throughout the generations that are simple to make, delicious and rich in their history.

In anticipation of her appearance, I thought it would be fun to ask her a few questions about her career and love for cooking.

This is your first time at Festa Italiana. What are you most looking forward to?
Yes this is my very first time at the Festa Italiana in Milwaukee. I heard so much about it, especially from Chef Nick Stellino, who has been there several times. When I met him at the Festa Italiana in Seattle last year he  also strongly suggested that I must attend. So now I’m really looking forward to coming to Milwaukee and meeting all the Italian-Americans and the lovers of Italy.
Have you been to Milwaukee before?
This is my very first trip to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. I can’t wait to visit and meet all my fans from this lovely city.
What are you most excited to do or see while you are here?
I’m sure there is great Italian food in Milwaukee but I hear there are some great breweries and steak houses! Would love to visit some of those world famous breweries.  Then of course I know you have a beautiful lake which is very scenic and relaxing!  I will be in town for two days… I think I will be very busy!
Tell me a bit about your relationship to food as you were growing up.  What part did food play in your family life?
As I was growing up I was constantly exposed to food as my maternal Nonna lived in our home and she was always cooking. As a child my role was that of the taster but as I got older I was given more mundane assignments: washing and cleaning! Food has always been a very focal point in my family and my life. The many family gatherings at holidays provided plenty of opportunities to be exposed to all the traditional foods that we prepared for each holiday. But not only at holidays, every day the most important decision that my Nonna and my mother would face was: What to cook at dinner at night!
From whom did you learn to cook?
Absolutely my primary teacher I have to say it was my Nonna. When I started college I moved in with her in Brooklyn, NY and every day we would cook together a meal just for the two of us.
Did you ever attend culinary school?
I attended an intensive program at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and I plan to attend several more programs these and at other institutions as well.
Who taught you most along the way?
Certainly my Nonna has been my main culinary mentor along the way but also my mother Angela and my aunts in Italy have been very influential on my culinary training. My mother is an artist and applies her artistic skills at cooking as well. She is very creative in her cooking.  My aunts in Italy are also excellent cooks and since I spent many summers there on vacation, I was exposed to many traditional dishes from Puglia using the freshest ingredients you could imagine.
How did you come up with the idea for Cooking with Nonna?
The idea came on the fly one Sunday afternoon after a long meal in Nonna’s basement. At the time I was in college and my dad asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said: I want to do a cooking show. After a few back and forth, the idea of Cooking with Nonna was born. The rest is history.
Where do you get the inspiration for your recipes?
At the very beginning most of the recipes that we worked with were recipes from my Nonna’s collection which she learned from her own mother.  As we continued to grow, the recipes were inspired by the other Nonne that came on my show. They all love to share their recipes and memories with everyone.
When you are at home, what do you like to eat?
When I'm home I try and eat healthy and clean so I keep lots of Organic chicken breast around and colorful vegetables.  Of course, I'd be lying if I said that having Nonna live downstairs from me didn't greatly impact what I eat every day.  I can't tell you how many times a day she'll call me and say "Come downstairs and eat, I made Parmigiana!"
What is your favorite place in Italy? Why?
I have spent many summers in a small fishing village in Puglia called Mola di Bari. It is now like a second home to me. I love going these and meet my family and friends and take the opportunity to visit many of the picturesque villages in the area: Alberobello, Polignano, Ostuni and many more.
What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you in the kitchen?
The funniest thing that ever happened to me in the kitchen was probably when I first attempted cooking. I was 4, and I decided I was going to make a cake.  I thought you made cake by putting whatever you found into a baking pan and putting it in the oven (not necessarily a hot one) and it would magically turn into one of my Nonna's deserts.  Needless to say the "soup" that came out of the oven wasn't anything anyone wanted to try. No matter what a cute little girl I was. Needless to say I've gotten better since then.
What would you say to someone who's totally intimidated by cooking?
Cooking is not difficult but for sure requires passion. If you can find the passion, then following a recipe, step by step, is a technicality. So, look for the passion first.
Name anyone (alive or deceased) that you would like to cook for and what you would serve them.
I would have loved to have been able to cook for Marilyn Monroe.  One of my mother's good friends, Lina Pepitone, who has recently  passed away, was her cook for the last six years of her life. Apparently Marilyn really loved Italian food, especially Stuffed Peppers.  She looked like a person who genuinely enjoyed food.  I imagine us cooking up some Stuffed Peppers together and gossiping about all her husbands.  I think we'd have a decadent Nutella dessert too. Probably my Mousse. It never fails!
What is the best compliment someone could give to you?
That they love the food so much and they just can't stop eating!  
For a light summer recipe, try this recipe, which showcases the true colors and flavors of summer.
Rigatoni alla Caprese
by Rosella Rago

1 lb Rigatoni pasta
1 lb Fresh Tomatoes, diced
1 lb Fresh mozzarella, diced
4 Cloves garlic
3 Leaves Fresh basil
4 Tbs olive oil
Salt, black pepper and Peperoncino

In a large pan, sauté the garlic until it turns golden. Add some hot pepper as desired and add the tomatoes. After a few minutes, cut the basil leaves in half and add to the pan and cook for 15 minutes. Boil the pasta to an Al Dente consistency and pour into the pan. Toss the pasta for 2 minutes. Add ¾ of the mozzarella and plate. Garnish with the remainder of the mozzarella and add a sprinkle of fresh black pepper as desired.

In celebration of Festa Italiana, we'll be giving away pairs of tickets to two (2) lucky readers!

For your chance to win, head on over to the Festa Italiana web site, check out the amazing list of foods that will be served, and come back and let us know which ones you most look forward to trying!

Giveaway ends on Saturday, July 14th.  Tickets will be mailed to the winners during the week of July 16th.

Winners will be chosen at random and notified by email, so please leave your email addy with your comment if it's not included with your Blogger profile. Entries from the U.S. only, please (and please only enter if you know that you can make it to Festa Italiana in Milwaukee on July 19 - 22).

Full Disclosure: This giveaway is sponsored by Festa Italiana, who provided us with the product for our giveaway. However, all opinions expressed in this post are our own.

©BURP! Where Food Happens


  1. Gelato, especially if it's as hot then as it has been recently. I ate gelato for most meals when I visited Italy :)

  2. Mmmm, the gnocchi with roasted tomato cream sauce sounds amazing. I make my own gnocchi, but I can never get that light and pillowy consistency that makes it so delicious - mine are usually too dense.

  3. Arancini! Rice balls are my forever favorite Sicilian treats. You had to practically pry the bowl of them out of my hands when I was a kid and my Nana made them for holiday dinners. They're the ultimate comfort food. :)

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  5. One of the churches in my town has an Italian festa every year. What's funny is that they try to attract the sizable Latino community and you see all of these posters for the Italian festa in Spanish!

    Most Italian festas (feste?) are pretty bland in this area. It's always the same food: sausage and pepper wedges, wine and peaches, pizza fritta, and a bunch of carnival stuff. It's funny how an area with one of the highest Italian-American populations in the country can't come up with something more unusual.

  6. The Arancini rice balls and the Gnocci with Fire Roasted Tomato Cream Sauce!

  7. Arancini and Antipasto salads are my fav. love octopus too!! I cant wait to go to Festa and the fireworks are beautiful!!!

  8. Every year my better half & I rate the arancini from the different vendors. We will do it again this year. I will consume several sausages as well!

  9. Rice balls! Delish!! I love everything Italian!

  10. Spiedini and gelato!

  11. The gnocchi does sound delicious, but I would never say no to gelato! (Any flavor!) When trying to explain what Italian food was to my 5 year old niece, I gave the example of spaghetti. Her response, "and MEATBALLS?" I think I know what she's looking forward to!

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  13. I'm straight up Broccoloni Sandwich and Arancini.

  14. I am looking forward to trying the Italian Sausage sandwich and the Italian Sausage Slides!!! Also, never had Gelato at Festa before, this would be a first for me!!

    Heather Wilcox
    12311 W. Dearbourn Ave.
    Wauwatosa,WI, 53226

  15. Also, I really want to try those Italian Fried Parmesan Potato Chips, SO good!!

    Heather Wilcox

    12311 W. Dearbourn Ave.
    Wauwatosa,WI, 53226

  16. All of it looks so fabulous but I really want to eat the Sfingi. So tasty!

  17. Fried Zucchini w/Garlic Aioli and Arancini.

  18. I love pizza and pasta recipes. Your dishes are mouth watering. Indian Cuisine.

  19. Gelato! I tried different kinds of gelato in each city I visited in Italy - it just got better and better! Yum! I'm willing to bet the gelato at Festa Italian will be just as delicious!

  20. I really want to try the gelato and the Italian Meatball Sandwich!!!

  21. Greetings–wanted to let you know that I just gave you the “Addictive Blogger” award for luring me in to your fun and tasty posts. For more info see:

    And since this coincidentally happened while you are doing a giveaway, I'll mention that I would be sure to eat the calamari because I am a serious calamari lover!


We're thrilled that you came to visit us here at BURP! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. We're not always able to respond to every comment, but we'll make every effort to answer questions in a timely fashion. We especially enjoy reading about what's going on in your own creative kitchens. So, don't be shy!

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