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The 90-year-old Italian cook who works part-time in a pizzeria

Maria “Nonna” Esposito is polite but firm when asked for her lasagna recipe.

“No no No. No. I kept it for 70 years, I will take it with me when I leave.

On Wednesdays, the 90-year-old spends a few hours at her son’s Nelson restaurant, Salvito’s Pizza Bar, making platters of cannelloni and lasagna.

She works for love – and company.

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Making Italian food requires fresh, quality ingredients, says Nonna.

Martin De Ruyter / Stuff

Making Italian food requires fresh, quality ingredients, says Nonna.

“I’m not on the payroll, I feel alone at home, so I’m here for the company. I’m very old – I make songs, then I sit down.

Nonna grew up in Grumento Nova, in south-central Italy. The region was poor, with little work. When Nonna was four, her father died of pneumonia and her mother rolled up her sleeves, working “like a man” to support the family through subsistence farming.

When Nonna’s uncle, who had emigrated to New Zealand, urged the 20-year-old to follow suit, she took a chance on a month-long sea voyage to Sydney ( “I was sick, sick, sick”) and then a flight to Auckland.

“I had never traveled before and I had never seen the sea before. I wrote to my uncle saying: ‘If I knew it was so far, I would never come!’

On her second day in the country, Nonna met her future husband, Kiwi-Italian Salvatore Esposito, in Wellington. She was on her way to Nelson, he was on vacation. In Nelson, Salvatore looked for her at church and the couple began spending time together.

Nonna remembers attending Salvatore’s brother’s wedding, where he was a witness.

“[Salvatore] had a nice Neapolitan accent and a tailored suit with a carnation. He had beautiful wavy hair.

Martin De Ruyter / Stuff

“I’m not on the payroll, I feel alone at home, so I’m here for the company. I’m very old – I do songs, then I sit down.”

They danced and he sang a love song. “Between homesickness and this song, it went straight to my heart, I liked it straight away.”

After their marriage – a union that lasted until Salvatore’s death in 2000 – Nonna began cooking, perfecting the Neapolitan dishes her husband loved and growing vegetables not usually found locally: oregano, eggplant, peppers.

“Nobody liked the peppers or the smell of garlic,” she said.

Nonna's son, John Esposito, and his grandsons Salvi and Vito, continue her tradition of Italian cuisine.

Martin De Ruyter / Stuff

Nonna’s son, John Esposito, and his grandsons Salvi and Vito, continue her tradition of Italian cuisine.

In fact, New Zealand food at that time was “terribly boring… overcooked vegetables, ordinary food”.

Tea, which Nonna didn’t like, was the drink of choice – chicory or roasted barley substituted for coffee.

Cooking daily for her three sons, her husband, her uncle and her mother (who eventually followed her to Nelson), Nonna practiced a lot in the kitchen.

When her children left home, Nonna honed her skills by working in a restaurant, where she prepared lasagna and dishes like beef stroganoff.

After Salvatore’s death, Nonna paid annual visits to her two sons in Australia. Halfway through his last trip, the pandemic closed the borders. She didn’t come home for more than two years, but she was happy, she said.

“I have good sons [in Australia]. We don’t have a wife, so mom is special. The other has a wife; but I’m special for him too.

When she finally returned home, she started working at Salvito every week: a way to get out of the house and reconnect with her son after their long separation.

“I love it: I love the people, I love this country. I am very happy to be able to do this for John.

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