December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Deconstructing nonna

By |2018-03-21T19:00:43+01:00May 26th, 2014|"In Provincia"|
A cheese and ham tart fit for a tsar (and bridge club).

talian grandmothers have long obsessed the international culinary press. It’s hardly possible to open an English-language cookbook about Italian cuisine without seeing a cover image of a wrinkly old peasant woman in a flower-patterned apron and headscarf.

Peddling the rural dream of a bygone time clearly remains a marketing staple. On the face of it, Italy’s entire gastronomic culture would seem to be preserved and broadcast by a bunch of illiterate 85-year-old grandmas living in crumbly hamlets atop unreachable mountains. There must be 20 of them left in the 21st-century, and all of them get a place in the cookbooks.

Fair enough, my friends, fair enough. But today’s Italy is something else. We Italians have all sorts of nonnas, and not just of the country variety. Anzi. Some live in cities, have a vocation, balance work and family with smartphones, and — big surprise — cook extremely well.

Take my friend Marta’s grandmother, the Countess Eleonora Baldelli Bombelli. Marta belongs to the fourth generation of a line of women entrepreneurs in Perugia, my Umbrian hometown. In her incredible atelier, the Museo-Laboratorio Brozzetti, she makes fine hand-woven textiles on antique jacquard looms. Her family has been keeping this unique and nearly extinct art form alive for nearly a century.

Her 19th century-born grandmother Eleonora was a fashion designer who traveled the world. In the 1950 and 60s she was still considered among the most beautiful women in Perugia. She had a lively social life and possessed a passion for bridge. Her fashion industry work won her a prestigious international prize.

In addition to her successful professional life, she was also acclaimed for her signature dish, a savory cheese and ham tart. She could never go a bridge date without bringing along the delightful treat, which was carefully arranged on a silver tray by her housekeeper Mrs. Ida. I wonder if Eleonora ever took one of her tarts to the last Russian Tsar, whom she met during one of her many travels.

See? This also is Italy. Behind clichés and coffee-table book prose (and their blog counterparts) are the stories of women who write, work, study, invent and manage. These are women of all ages and social status, with and without wrinkles. These are women that go home and cook something nice for their family and friends after a long day’s work. To tell you the truth, a large number of men are also excellent home cooks, and no, they don’t wear a coppola flat cap. Not all of us are ancient-looking (let alone ancient-thinking).

It is with a certain degree of pride that I hand down Eleonora’s tart recipe, which has never been published before. I wish Marta had more time to tell me her stories, but I’m lucky she took the time to dig out the recipe from our family notes. It’s simple and brilliant, just like her very special grandmother.

The Countess’s Cheese and Ham Tart a.k.a. Pizza Sora Ida



  • 500 gr (1 lb) flour.

  • 2 eggs.

  • 100 gr (3 oz) grated Parmigiano.

  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.

  • 1 teaspoon salt.

  • 3-4 tablespoon milk.


  • 200 gr (8 oz) fresh mozzarella, sliced thinly.

  • 100 gr (3 oz) prosciutto crudo, shredded.

  • 100 gr (3 oz) Swiss cheese, sliced thinly.


— Preheat oven at 200C (390F).

— In a food processor, combine the dough ingredients and mix at maximum speed until soft dough forms (add more milk if the dough is too dry).

Alternatively mix ingredients by hand in a large bowl, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until the mix is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

— Transfer the dough onto a worktop, cut in 2 pieces and roll into two 3 mm (1/8 inch) thick squares. Line a 30×30 cm (12×12 inch) oven tin with parchment paper. Transfer one square on the tin. Arrange the Swiss cheese, the prosciutto and mozzarella on the square and top with the second square of dough. Pinch the edges of the squares together and seal with a fork.

— Brush the top of the tart with olive oil.

— Bake for 30-40 minutes or until lightly golden. Let it cool off a little. Serve at room temperature.

About the Author:

Letizia Mattiacci wrote the "In Provincia" column from 2011 through 2019.