Pine Nut

A Torta della Nonna that My Nonna Never Made

April  4, 2016

The Torta della Nonna is the trifecta: shortbread, pastry cream with subtle hints of lemon and vanilla, and pinoli (pine nuts). Then again, you could cover a shoe in the pastry cream and I'd eat it. Whatever the secret is, it's delicious. After researching briefly where the name "Grandmother’s Cake" came from, I quickly found that, like many Italian traditions, the name Torta della Nonna has many plausible origins—but I think the most interesting are those with personal stories tied to them, like mine.

I’m an Italian-American from New Jersey. It seemed that almost everyone I met growing up had an Italian grandmother, and memories of their nonna spending hours over a stove, or guarding her top-secret recipes, passed down for generations—there’s always such a special bond between a nonna and food. The same holds true for me and my nonna.

My mother moved here shortly after my sister was born, leaving behind her family (and a few dogs and an epic wardrobe) for the States. She held on to her Italian roots, raised my sister and I bilingual, and ensured we both obtained dual citizenship. We spent several months each year with our overseas family soaking up the sun on La Maddalena’s notorious beaches, but while my sister Jessica spent most of her time making friends with the neighborhood kids, I spent my time clutching my nonna’s apron as she cooked.

Top left: Rebecca's mom as a babe in La Maddalena, Sardegna. Top right: Rebecca's mom and nonna feeding a giraffe at the zoo in Rome. Bottom: Rebecca's nonna in Sardegna. Photo by Rebecca Salisbury

She’d let me play in the garden while she tended to her vegetables, roll dough for pasta or grate day-old bread for breadcrumbs. My grandmother was pretty much Superwoman to me. I mean, the woman could and would flip chicken cutlets in a frying pan using her fingers. She's the reason I ended up going to culinary school so many years later.

Shop the Story

Let’s be clear: My grandmother did NOT bake, and she certainly never baked this cake for us—but it does remind me of my grandmother, and not only for its title. On one of Sardegna’s many little islands lies Caprera, a natural reserve, home to many wondrous things among which are la pineta. Many locals (and tourists) visit the island for it’s beautiful secluded beaches, opportunities to spot wild boars and goats (which is where the island gets its namesake: capra means goat in Italian) and the pine trees. Why? Pinoli.

Rebecca's nonna and nonno. Photo by Rebecca Salisbury

During the right season, it’s a goldmine. My grandmother would take us to harvest these little guys for hours. It’s certainly not easy work and if you’ve ever done it yourself, you know why pinoli have such a hefty price tag at the market. So, it’s a funny coincidence for me that this Torta della Nonna should be covered in a generous helping of pinoli. Every time I make it, it’s like I’m pouring one out for my grandmother. (This one’s for you, Nonna!)

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I immediately thought of my European grandmother. The recipe looks fabulous too and I happen to be on an Italian baking spree (learning the language too). Thank you for sharing this. I especially loved the photos you included.”
— kristin T.

I would say my mother sends me the link to this recipe (I translated this one from about once a month asking me to bake it for her at the most inconvenient times. "I know you just got finished working a 60-hour week and I'm coming over in 15 minutes but... I could really use a slice of cake with my coffee." My mother, an amazing cook, has no sense for baking or the preparation that goes into it. But if you're reading this, Mom, the answer is yes... I'll make this for you tonight.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Am9
  • Barb
  • Waynefw
  • kristin t lane
    kristin t lane
  • Connor Bower
    Connor Bower
For the love of food, plants, dogs and all things beautiful.


Am9 October 9, 2016
Nonna and Nonno were hot! Good for you!
Barb April 7, 2016
@wanefw--"docking" means to poke holes in it with a fork, to keep the pastry from rising too much in the oven. It's frequently done with puff pastry in the middle but not the sides, in order to create a raised edge to keep the filling in.
Waynefw April 5, 2016
What do you mean by "dock the surface of the dough with a fork.."
kristin T. April 5, 2016
What loving and personal recollections. I immediately thought of my European grandmother. The recipe looks fabulous too and I happen to be on an Italian baking spree (learning the language too). Thank you for sharing this. I especially loved the photos you included.
Connor B. April 5, 2016
I love this.
Claudia |. April 5, 2016
My nonna didn't bake as well, but I've had thousand of slices of torta della nonna, and I'll have a thousand more ;-)
Sharon M. April 4, 2016
Beautiful story, beautiful family! This Nonna is saving this recipe for a special day. Thank you for sharing.
Leandra April 4, 2016
WOW! your grandparents are crazy goodlooking
Winness April 4, 2016
This sounds wonderful! My mother would have made this, but my Neapolitan nonna made a few baked goods that would have been similar. By the way, the nut used is "pignoli." I had to laugh because I automatically (but silently, less I get snickers) would pronounce it pig-noly.
Lyn April 4, 2016
Can anyone give an amount for the sugar?
Kristin T. April 4, 2016
850 grams of sugar sure seems like a lot. Was that a typo?
Mercy H. April 4, 2016
I went to the recipe using the Torta link near the top of the article and it says 250 grams of sugar, which sounds like it's closer to what should be used in this cake.
Rebecca S. April 4, 2016
Yes! 850 was a typo and has been corrected. Thanks for catching!
Tyler V. April 4, 2016
What an excellent story! I too grew up in an Italian family! It's amazing how many of my memories center around holidays, feast days, or Sunday lunches. Thanks for sharing this recipe!