By car, you can reach Palombara Sabina from Rome in about an hour. It’s a small village that lies between Italy’s capital city and Monte Zappi, the highest peak west of it. Despite the proximity to the Colosseum, Vatican City, or even the natural parks that border it, Palombara Sabina has not always been a very popular stop for tourists. That was, until nearly three years ago when visitors began arriving in increasing numbers, asking for the grandma making fettuccine.
Chiara Nicolanti recalls the shift well. It was her grandmother that these visitors had come to see, prompted by a new business venture they had embarked on together. Through Airbnb Experiences, Nicolanti, 32, and Nerina Tamanti — also known as Nonna Nerina — 83, invited guests to their family home to give them the authentic experience of homemade pasta-making. Less than three years later, Handmade Pasta With Grandma is bigger than either could have imagined. You might credit the success to an unrefuted love of carbs, but according to Nicolanti, the experience is as much about preparing a delicious dish as it is about recreating a sense of family and honoring a tradition of caregiving that dates back generations.
Homemade pasta was a daily meal for family matriarch Nonna Nerina in her childhood home. Along with her four sisters and one brother, Nonna grew up in a poor family in mid-World War II Italy. It was her mother who prepared pasta — then made with flour and water, rather than a pricier flour-and-egg mixture — as an inexpensive way to feed her family.
“I loved to watch my mom make pasta,” Nonna Nerina says of her childhood. “I wanted to make it so that I could be like her, so my dad made a pink step for me so that I could reach the top of the table.”
Beyond height, Nonna looked up to her mother as her most trusted friend, advisor, and someone whose footsteps she wanted to follow. “Making pasta, feeding children, and keeping them alive and healthy was important and special for women,” Nicolanti explains of her grandmother’s upbringing that included learning to make pasta before she had turned 6 years old.
Nonna Nerina has lived most of her life in Palombara Sabina and raised her family here. “She worked in the field all her life,” Nicolanti says, “picking cotton, cherries, and olives” as the village itself is famous for its olive oil. And like her own mother, Nonna eventually grew to embody the same examples of caring and guidance. In a somewhat inadvertent way, that’s how a tourism business with her granddaughter began.
Nicolanti, on the other hand, left Palombara Sabina at the age of 18 to study in Paris and London. An actress, she traveled everywhere from North America to Northern Africa for about 10 years, until she unexpectedly found herself four-months pregnant, unemployed, and back in her hometown just west of Rome. While she “never imagined to come back” to Palombara Sabina, with her plans upended, her grandmother stepped in for support.
“She appeared in my home and started to make pasta in front of me,” Nicolanti explains. “She didn’t ask me ‘How are you feeling?’ or say ‘Everything will be okay!’ She just started to speak about her life, her mom, her grandma, about the story of women. I realized what I was experiencing — loneliness — was something that happened to her first and to her mom. What she was doing in front of me was what generations before did: fighting to survive. In that moment, I realized I wanted to keep that tradition alive.”
Nicolanti soon came across an ad for Airbnb’s then-new Experiences offerings and submitted photos of her grandmother and her idea: a visit to her home and a chance to participate in the time-honored tradition of preparing pasta.
The itinerary for the Experience includes a trip from Rome to Palombara Sabina, a walk through the village, and an introduction to its history that dates back to medieval times. Once with Nicolanti and her grandmother in their home, visitors snack on bruschetta and wine and learn the techniques to prepare three different kinds of pasta, all before eating together and heading back to the capital city. Once Airbnb accepted the Experiences proposal and advertised it, “we were overbooked for all summer,” Nicolanti recalls.
After the first year, Nicolanti, along with her grandmother and extended family, had earned enough money to purchase a new home for her business. She restored an old kitchen that her late grandfather, a winemaker, once worked in. “The even more incredible thing is all these other grandmothers around Italy wanted to join,” recalls Nicolanti. Soon handmade pasta-making classes with grandmas were popping up in areas of Naples and Ancona, inspired by their lead and, seemingly, a common desire to connect and care for one another (the Pasta Granny phenomenon has even made its way to YouTube and cookbooks, making bonafide stars out of its subjects). “The goal is not about cooking, it’s about how special it is to be all together, slow down, and have true relationships,” says Nicolanti.
Today, Nicolanti, now a mother of two, and Nonna Nerina still reside and work in Palombara Sabina, but they’ve also begun taking their class on the road, most recently to San Francisco. Nonna’s On Tour, as they call it, is another way to share an experience that started at their kitchen table: the simple act of preparing a meal for someone, showing up just as a reminder that they’re not alone, being there for support even when they don’t know how to ask for it. “I think it’s something special to have a grandma. She knows you better than yourself,” Nicolanti says of her business partner.
And for Nonna Nerina, the rewards of working with her family and welcoming strangers to her home is just as significant. “I feel blessed that every day there is someone in my home. There’s much more love in my life and I’m so proud to teach the real Italian recipes to the world.”
While the itinerary may not explicitly list it, Nonna Nerina says a day in her home is kind of like becoming an honorary member of the family. She’ll share advice, make you feel at home, feed you until you’re more than satisfied, and if you’re up for it, hug you as though she’s known you since you were too little to reach the top of the kitchen table. “She hugs you and she hugs you,” says Nicolanti with a laugh. “No personal space.”
For more from Nonna Nerina, check back for our Ask Nonna advice column — in which she’ll serve as an R29 guest editor, covering everything from expert holiday hosting pointers to ghosting guidance — coming soon.
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