Antonio Nigro, 24, of Edison, N.J., had no idea he would make his grandmother into a social media sensation simply by videotaping her doing what she loves to do.
It all started in January 2020. Pia Quaglieri, now 83 years old, was sitting in the kitchen getting ready for a trip to the supermarket. As his Nonna (pronounced NO-nna, Italian for grandmother) was writing a shopping list of everything she needed to cook for Sunday dinner for a family party, Nigro decided to videotape her.
“At the time, I had a TikTok account, but I wasn’t very active. I posted the video for fun and thought nothing of it,” he said. “A few hours later, I looked at my phone and the video had 100,000 views. It was a complete fluke. I didn’t expect it to go viral.”
Today, Nonna Pia (@nonnapiaa) has over 2.6 million followers on TikTok. Her fans love her, calling her “amazing” and “a treasure.” Nonna Pia has really struck an emotional chord with people who have lost a grandparent or were separated from loved ones due to the pandemic.
According to Nigro, “Eighty percent of the comments on our videos are about how Nonna reminds them of their own grandmother. She connects people to their own traditions, to their own good family memories.”
Nonna Pia’s passion for cooking
For some, cooking is a necessity or even a chore. But for Quaglieri, cooking is a passion. In an interview with Next Avenue, she said, “I love when everybody eats cause it makes me so happy to see smiles on everyone’s face.”
Quaglieri was raised in Italy and immigrated to the U.S. when she was in her late teens.
“Nonna Pia lived through World War II. During that time, she didn’t have that much to eat. Now, she always makes sure there is plenty. Nonna has no portion control. Even though we can eat a lot, there are always leftovers; sometimes we have full trays that we give to friends and neighbors,” Nigro said.
In a video of Nonna taken on July 3, Nigro comments that there is no way that the table full of food is just the leftovers from that night’s dinner. Nonna laughs and says she cooked so much pasta and meatballs there will be no need for a barbecue on the Fourth of July.
Quaglieri says she learned how to cook from her mother and sister-in-law. She relies on simple ingredients, including lots of fresh produce.
Of his grandmother, Nigro said, “Like many immigrants, she came from humble beginnings, so she doesn’t use a lot of expensive ingredients in her cooking. She also doesn’t experiment much. She prefers to stick to cooking dishes she knows how to make and she has become an even better cook with age.”
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‘The way I make it’
Everything Quaglieri serves, from bread to pasta, is homemade. In one video, Quaglieri asks her grandson if he wants macaroni and cheese for lunch, adding, “The way I make it. No from a box.”
In another video, Nigro asks Nonna if the sauce (yes, she prefers the word sauce to gravy) she is using for her lasagna is store bought. Quaglieri visibly shudders and says, “Are you kidding me?”
“Sometimes people mistakenly think that she uses mass-made jarred sauce in the videos. But we actually jar our own sauce every summer. The entire family — aunts, uncles, cousins — we all get together to make fresh sauce in August,” Nigro said. “It’s a whole process, puréeing the tomatoes, adding the ingredients and making tons of jars of sauce so we can use it year-round.”
Unlike some content creators, Nigro chooses not to make videos that are enhanced or heavily edited. Instead, he posts vignettes of his grandmother’s real everyday life. Nigro captures Nonna Pia cooking, cleaning, laughing, dancing and enjoying herself.
The videos illustrate her love of life and family, as well as her incredible strength. Viewers see Quaglieri lifting giant pots and kneads huge mounds of dough to make homemade bread and pasta.
Nigro said, “Pia is such a hard worker. She cooks almost every day. Then she cleans the kitchen and the whole house.”
Added Quaglieri, “It’s all I did my whole life. I always had mouths to feed.”
Nigro joked, “Nonna doesn’t need exercise because she is always on her feet, except for in the evenings when she likes to sit in the living room with us to watch her game shows.”
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A surprise TikTok sensation
Quaglieri is surprised by how popular she has become on TikTok.
“At first, when I told her about the number of likes and views her videos are getting, I am not sure she understood it, but she was flattered,” Nigro said. “Her fame has hit her more recently and she gets a kick out of it when people recognize her when she is out grocery shopping.”
Quaglieri said, “Yes, I’m very surprised that so many people care for my cooking. It feels good cause I like to show people how I cook.” But while she appreciates her online followers, her biggest joy is cooking for her family. She is very proud of her eight grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.
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Nigro considers himself an old soul. Throughout his life he has always enjoyed spending time with his older relatives, especially his grandmother. “Nonna Pia has lived with us (his parents and brother) since I was a little kid. She is like a second mother to me,” he said.
Quaglieri is often heard in the videos telling her grandson, “You got to learn.”
She explained, “Because when I’m not here [any] more, they need to keep the Italian traditions going. I always want all my grandkids to eat just as good.”
The desire to keep these recipes and traditions alive is why Nigro started making the videos. “There are no recipes written down, no measurements — she cooks by feel, by taste and by memory,” he said.
“All the recipes are in my head, I just remember them,” Quaglieri explained. (Often asked by fans if she wants to write a cookbook, Quaglieri replies, “How am I going to write a cookbook when I don’t write English?”)
Nigro is happy to see the world embracing his grandmother, but says it wasn’t his intent to make his Nonna famous
“It has never been about making money or gaining followers. The motivation for the videos is to preserve our traditions. I record Nonna Pia for us, for our family. I want to preserve her traditions and make sure that her love of food and family continues through the generations,” Nigro said.
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Growing up Italian
Saturday, March 19 was St. Joseph’s Day and how else would Italians choose to commemorate the day but with a feast?
Sabino Curcio, owner of Anthony and Son Sandwich Shoppe in Brooklyn, N.Y. and co-creator of the Growing Up Italian podcast, said, “For us, food is about family and tradition. Italians, we take pride in our cooking. We cook the dishes that remind us of the good memories we have growing up, sitting around the table all together.”
In Curcio’s words, you don’t have to be rich to enjoy a plentiful and delicious Italian meal.
“In Italy, and even when they first came to America, Italians struggled. They didn’t have money or access to fancy ingredients. They didn’t eat much meat or chicken. Instead, they worked with good, inexpensive ingredients – the best they could find,” he said. “Water, flour – that’s all it takes to make a pasta or pizza dough.”
And while today’s modern Italian cooking tries to reinvent the classics, Curcio believes that is nonsense.
“A homemade crust, with homemade sauce and fresh mozzarella – that’s a pizza. There is no reason to add pineapple or other funky ingredients,” he said. “It’s not broken, so there is no need to fix it.”
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son. Read more of her work on randimazzella.com.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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