Kitchn Love Letters

I’m a Professional Cook, and This $13 Nonna Knife Is My Go-To Tool for At-Home Meal Prep

published Nov 11, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/The Kitchn

As a professional cook, I was taught that my knives were the most important tool I would ever hold. Chefs love and revere their knives, with some spending entire paychecks on their blades. For work, I have a knife roll — a case with all the tools and knives I need to cook on the hot line every day. My knives are my most prized possessions: I spend hours cleaning and sharpening them, and I make sure the blades are protected in special plastic covers before rolling them up in my padded case. They’re an extension of my hand and are directly tied to my livelihood. These knives are used to execute painstakingly perfect knife cuts, from quarts and quarts of identical carrot matchsticks and diced onions to razor-thin slices of radish. Anything else is unacceptable. Cooks spend years honing their knife skills, and the knives they use are often just as important as the skills themselves. 

Before my passionate love of chef knives (and professional cooking in general) began, I spent my childhood cooking with my grandmother, aunts, and great-grandmother — all strong, Italian women who could cook circles around Michelin-starred chefs, if you ask me. Growing up, I didn’t learn the strict rules that are hammered into you in the professional kitchen setting. Instead, I learned how to make pasta dough by feel — not measurements — how to make traditional dishes without a recipe, and how to cook the way that made the most sense for the equipment we had available and the lifestyle we lived. This means that my nonna, Italian for “grandmother,” wasn’t modeling a perfect brunoise on the onion meant for the Sunday pasta sauce or slicing perfectly even ribbons of cheese for the antipasti. She also wasn’t wielding a fancy, high-end chef’s knife. She used what many Italians and Italian-Americans affectionately refer to as a “Nonna Knife.”

These are small, flexible, often lightly serrated knives that appear in drawers in every Italian kitchen. Not quite a paring knife, not quite a utility knife, and meant for more uses than a steak knife — a Nonna Knife is its own thing. Nonna Knives are meant for cutting up in the air, cutting cherry tomatoes plucked from the garden in half right over the pot, and slicing bites off a link of soppressata while walking around. Nonna Knives are the versatile knife every Italian home cook uses for nearly any task. (My nonna even once pried a splinter out of my hand using one.)

At work, I follow the rules of the kitchen — proper knife cuts and knife safety. I diligently slice shallots for the Sunday brunch hollandaise with intense concentration, and I’d never be caught dead waving my chef’s knife up in the air over my cutting board. At home, well, that’s a different story. I am, first and foremost, an Italian cook over a professional one, so you better believe I do much of my cooking with my Nonna Knife. It’s up to nearly any task, and since they’re so cheap, I do things with them that I’d never do with my fancy work knives, like pry open a stubborn can or open some plastic packaging. They’re easy and convenient and can be used for cutting logs of semolina dough to shape your favorite hand-formed pasta shapes, to cutting off a few hunks of cheese for a midnight snack, to snapping the tips off fresh green beans; there’s really nothing they can’t do. 

Credit: Nick DeSimone

Nonna Knives are meant to be used — it’s okay if you’re hard on them, that’s how you know you’re cooking well and often. In direct contrast to my work knives (which are squeaky clean and shiny), my beat-up Nonna Knife is a badge of honor. Every knick in the blade and scratch on the plastic handle is evidence of cooking. While I have a knife roll full of knives and tools for any task imaginable, at home, my most used piece of equipment is my Nonna Knife. After years of cooking in professional kitchens and learning all the strict rules that come with this career, nothing makes me feel closer to my grandmother and all the Italian cooks in my family than breaking those rules and walking around my house with my Nonna Knife, slicing pieces off an apple to snack on and share, just like my nonna did.