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La cucina paradiso

Panna cotta with fresh figs

Panna cotta with fresh figs. Photo by Jennifer Dow

The fall of 2015 saw the opening of their current retail location, Nonna Elena on Route 6A in East Sandwich. This new location boasts a cozy working fireplace, shelves stocked with the spoils of Italian purveyors, and gleaming refrigerated cases bursting with cheeses, salumi and sausages. A back room houses freezers full of cannoli, gelati and fresh pasta. The namesake of the store, whose portrait graces the exterior of the building as well as labels of the store-branded items, was Carlo’s grandmother. “Carlo lost his grandmother a few years back, but her sister still lives in their little village,” Matrascia says. “Whenever I send anything over with her portrait on the label, or any press we get, she celebrates the success of her deceased sister with the entire village.”

Matrascia says that the store has had a profound effect on the growing list of customers who have discovered it once and now make it a regular stop. “It has become a place where ‘you can be Italian,’” she says. “People continually tell me that they can’t be Italian on the Cape. You know how it feels when you go to Hanover Street in Boston’s North End—you are transported. That is what happens when you come here.” By all indications, she may be on to something. A visit to the store not only fills the bill for pantries and plates across the Cape, but something about the lingering conversations, the recollections of generations of ancestors and their Italian roots, fills the souls of those who stop by.

Matrascia and Benyo have shared their love of Italy in more ways than just recommending the authentic delicacies they offer at Nonna Elena; they provide a truly immersive experience with local cooking classes. On a warm October evening, resplendent with the feel of an autumn harvest, some fortunate members of the Cape Cod Life staff gathered in the couple’s warm and inviting marsh-front home in Yarmouth Port for one of Matrascia’s classes. Matrascia openly declares that she is the cook, while Benyo willingly functions as sous chef and chief cleanup crew. Their kitchen, the impressive product of a thoughtful remodel a few years earlier, is spacious and accommodating for groups as large as eight. Seated at a long bar counter, hungry participants peer over the prep and cook area, allowing close examination of every nuance Matrascia deftly employs to transport her students to the heavenly kitchens of Venezia, Toscana and Piemonte. Each recipe is accompanied by anecdotes of travel, or local lore and legends of villages from another time and place.

A natural extension of this immersion into Italian culture and cuisine began a few years ago when Matrascia and Benyo started offering tours to friends, customers and groups to Italy. As Matrascia says with a wink, “I go to Italy twice a year, whether I need to or not, so why not take a few friends?” The itinerary is crafted with thought, love and a splash of adventure for each group. Sometimes the region visited is determined by the ancestral roots someone wants to explore, sometimes it is just the not-to-miss destinations of the popular country. But always, it is a trip that is carefully planned to provide an insider’s experience.

Like a precious and delicious cipollina, the Italian word for onion, the future for Matrascia and Benyo appears to have many more layers. Matrascia is currently working on a Nonna Elena cookbook, due out by the end of 2018. No doubt it will encourage and enable anyone to “be Italian,” even on Cape Cod.

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