My Italian Grandmother Wasn’t a “Nonna,” and Yours Probably Wasn’t Either

“Nonna” is the Italian word for grandmother (“nonno” for grandfather). It is used whenever Italians speak of a grandmother figure, the woman sporting a bun, apron, perhaps rolling pin or wooden spoon and always in the kitchen cooking. I am Italian on both sides with grandparents from Italy. However, these words “nonna” and “nonno” are foreign to me.


                             Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash


My grandmother was from a town just outside Naples. My grandfather was from a town about 30 minutes away in the mountains. We called grandma “anonn” and grandpa “unonn” pronounced like “ah-nun” and “oo-nun” in Neapolitan dialect. I imagine the words are similar or the same throughout the South of Italy.


Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect. So the word “nonna” is from standard Italian. (I’ve written an article on Italian dialect here.) It is strange that even though the overwhelming majority of Italian immigrants were from Southern Italy, the words from the Northern Italian dialects are accepted without question.


Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

You will see “nonna” in the media, and indeed, I have reluctantly used it in articles because that is the term used in contemporary media for grandparents. But in my heart and in my home, grandma and grandpa will always be anonn and unonn.


I wish my grandparents and great-grandparents were here, but I know they are smiling down on me. I know they are proud that, of all the books I could have written, in my 20-year career with a master’s in creative writing from NYU and a law degree, I chose to write their story, I chose to do the right thing, not the popular thing, not the marketable thing. And so it was, when I was deciding if I wanted to write a cookbook a number of years ago, that I started researching Italian food in more depth. Given my own personal experiences and those of my family along with the research I have done both here and in Italy, I could no longer remain silent to the maligning, so commonplace today that it has become inadvertent in many instances, of millions of people of their generation and their descendants. Since my book was published in March 2018, I see a zeitgeist of exploration of Italian-American history and culture in the popular media.


                            Photo by from Pexels


And I can still see my anonn, even though she’s been dead for years, with her old wooden rolling pin, rolling out dough for struffoli and bows, or sitting at the kitchen table shaking some Brioschi onto a napkin for me to eat while she drank hers in a glass of fizzing water. I see her picking mint in the backyard near the white fence. I see her stirring a pot of tomato gravy on Sunday morning that in my memory’s eye seemed taller than her.


I hear her voice, in her optimistic way, saying “you never know.” Meaning, you never know, something good might happen. I miss these Yogi Berra-like idiomatic sayings of hers. From her, I learned to never show up empty-handed to someone’s house, or in her words, “with my hands hanging.” She made me laugh when she told nasty people to “go shit in a hat.” Another she always shared with me is “check your dates.” She meant that, at the grocery store, I should always check the date on the food I buy to make sure it’s the freshest.


So as Mother’s Day is around the corner, I impart some of my anonn’s wisdom to you—never go anywhere with your hands hanging, you never know what may happen, the creeps can go shit in a hat, and always check your dates.


–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, available at, published March 2018


                                     Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Image by Markéta Machová from Pixabay

13 responses to “My Italian Grandmother Wasn’t a “Nonna,” and Yours Probably Wasn’t Either

  1. I loved this tribute to your Anonn, Dina. And that you continue to set the record straight on the true culture and history of most Americans of Italian descent. The message seems to be getting out there!
    Loved the blog post on Circa too! Spaghetti and Meatballs is Italian!

  2. I am Nonna to my four grandchildren. And when I speak to them I will say, “I love you aNonna which is equal to saying I love you, darling. My parents came to America from Messina, Sicily. When I met my Nonna for the first time; I was a nine-year-old girl. The first words she spoke to me were, “ Figlia mia,, vieni da me Anonna. This was what I knew growing up.
    When I met my husband, whose family came from Naples I observed when they spoke they would drop the vowel at the end of many words thus- anonn.

    I look forward to ordering and reading your book.

  3. Alyson Snaith

    Do you know of the word Mimille for grandmother? That was the name used for my great-grandmother who lived in central Italy.

    • huntfortheverybest

      Hi Alyson, Thanks for stopping by! I am not familiar with that term for grandmother. It sounds like it’s a dialect word. What region in central Italy?

    • Thanks for sharing that, my Italian mother from Agnone, Abruzzi/central Italy, called her mother’s mother Mamaile or Mimille too (my great grandmother)! Now I know why! Her maternal grandfather was “Tatonne”spelling? have you ever heard of that one? Never knew if that was for grandfather, I was a young child when my great grandparents died.

  4. I loved this post.

    A question from a non-Italian, Dina.. Why or how did ‘Nonna’ become commonplace? Is Neapolitan still spoken in Southern Italy?

    Also, my Irish mother had a similar expression for ‘one hand hanging’ which was ‘one arm as long as the other.’ In other words, showing up at someone’s door empty-handed! And instead of ‘You never know’, as encouragement to be hopeful, she said, ‘God is good.’

    It’s a cliche, but there really are so many deeply rooted similarities between Italian and Irish culture, apart from religion.

    I hope you’ll post more memories of your grandmother. We need to remember their values and traditions more than ever now.

  5. JoAnn D. Stewart

    My father and 4 grandparents were from Southern Italy. My grandfathers were always called Nonno but my grandmoithers were always called Nonni. When my mother’s sister (my oldest aunt) here in the US started having grandchildren, they too called her Nonni.

  6. My grandparents were all born in southern Italy. I, too, am 100% Italian. My grandmothers were Nannys and my grandfathers Poppys. It’s my contention they wanted to Americanize the names. Sadly, neither of my parents spoke much Italian, again for the same reason – to be accepted. We never called sauce gravy; it was always sauce, but the go shit in your hat thing was part of their arsenal of sayings. Of course theirs included an addendum – “and leave.”
    This article brought tears to my eyes! In the event I ever have a grandchild, I wish to be called Nonna, but I’m certain it will be Nanny. Both my children adored their Nanny! Thank you for this memory. I’ll be looking for your cookbooks!

  7. my grandmother was nonna and my great grandmother was nonnina…I called my nonno powie because he used to say he was going to give me a rap in the mouth

  8. I am half Italian and my grandparents were from Southern Italy. My grandfather died long before I was born, but my “Nonni” was around until I was six. She never learned English and on Sundays we all gathered at her home. The adults were in the kitchen speaking Italian and the cousins were playing. I also remember “knowing” when the elders were talking about me even though I did not have command of the language. I understood some but I was not able to converse with Nonni. We were taught that whenever you entered a gathering of family you greeted the oldest members first with a kiss on the cheek. I still do this to this day when greeting my older cousins. Bocce was the “sport” we played at family gatherings and still do. I remember the friendly arguments (from my uncles and older cousins)who would yell, “whose got a 36″ waist?” And off would come someone’s belt to measure whose ball was closest for the points.

  9. I am from Naples and you are exactly Right Nola San Paolo Belsito and Livardi my parents came from
    We called grandma “anonn” and grandpa “unonn” pronounced like “ah-nun” and “oo-nun” in Neapolitan dialect.

  10. My Parents are from Naples i was born in little italy Montreal
    you are exactly Right Nola San Paolo Belsito and Livardi my parents came from
    We called grandma “anonn” and grandpa “unonn” pronounced like “ah-nun” and “oo-nun” in Neapolitan dialect.

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