Conversations: Chiara in Palombara
“I’m sorry I can’t open the castle today. I have the key, but they’re doing work inside.” Standing at the royal peak of Chiara’s hilltop hometown, I thought she was joking. Once a vagabonding actress, not to be found in the same country twice, the exuberant thespian never imagined herself returning to the small, ancient, and agricultural village of Palombara Sabina. But, to her surprise, years spent traveling had rendered her hometown a stranger. When she did return, she was seeing Palombara as though for the first time. All that which she once considered normal, was suddenly all that which made Palombara special, worth visiting, and worth showing people.
“Who wants to cook with Nonna?” It was this jocular Facebook post, accompanied by a photo of her grandmother rolling pasta, that bridged the gap between roving actress and hometown culinary entrepreneur. Equipped with the answer—everyone wants to cook with Nonna—and energized by her rediscovery of the familiar, Chiara created Nonna’s, a full-day experience beginning with a serene train ride from Rome into the Italian countryside. The glorious crescendo starts with a walk through Palombara’s labyrinthine streets. It builds with 100 grams of flour, an egg, and a rambunctious grandmother, confident in her technique and comfortable in her home. It peaks with a feast. The products of Nonna’s second nature, Chiara’s infectious personality and aptitude for teaching, and your own willingness to learn: ravioli, cannelloni, and fettuccine. Calling it a tour and a cooking class would border on libel. This is Chiara’s love letter to Italian pasta traditions and an encomium to Palombara Sabina.
“I don’t want these pasta techniques to be lost,” Chiara’s electric voice softened. “My mom’s generation was the first to have freedom for women, so they refused to learn anything about the home. It’s wonderful, because my generation is free to do anything, but now we must try to keep things alive. It’s the same as, if you spend all your life here, things like having a castle in the middle of your town feel normal. If you travel you realize they’re not. People in these villages really do not understand how much they have. Every small village is a small gem. You have to trust in and share what you have, or else it will all be nothing.”
Small towns are oft static, equally as charming as they are set in their ways. Chiara brought her hands to her cheeks, shaking her head as she regaled stories of the village’s initial resistance to her new venture. The town center rolling their eyes when she’d ask to be let into the castle, and her neighbors making no efforts to be subtle in their disapproval. The sneers and side-eyes she described were hard to imagine; as we looped through the Palombara maze, person after person greeted us with a warm and boisterous buongiorno! And yes, after six months of returning day after day with new groups of visitors, asking to be let into the castle, the village finally gave her a key. “They understand now,” she explained far too humbly, “it is a good thing people are coming. There is much less paper in the streets, because they are starting to feel proud, they are starting to take care of what they have.”
In starting Nonna’s, Chiara had the simple mission of sharing her home and her family’s traditions, but her efforts have had a much grander influence. By opening her small village to outsiders, she has not only allowed visitors to see her home through the eyes of a Palombarian, but also allowed Palombarians to see their home through the eyes of a visitor, as though for the very first time.