Q&A: How an 87-year-old Italian grandma became an accidental YouTube star

Featured Image Gina
Gina Petitti serves tripe, one of the recipes from her YouTube channel “Buon-A-Petitti.” (Photo courtesy of Maria Testa)

By Carolina Baldin
Medill Reports

Nearly seven years ago, Gina Petitti, an Italian grandma who lives in Freehold, New Jersey, starred in her first video. She simply wanted to record memories for her family. Last January, the 87-year-old’s YouTube channel, “Buon-A-Petitti” (a wordplay combining “Buon appetito,” which means “Enjoy your meal,” and Petitti’s last name), hit 1 million subscribers on YouTube. In this family production, her son-in-law records the videos and manages the account with the help of his wife, Maria, one of Petitti’s four children, while she focuses on cooking — and singing.

The entrepreneurial octogenarian has sold more than 24,000 copies of her self-published book “Cooking with Grandma Gina.” Its subtitle: “You wanna eat, you gotta cook!” It’s the life motto she learned from her parents back in Puglia, Italy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


When did you learn how to cook?

Back in Italy, my mother used to go with my father to (our) farm. And she taught us to cook.


How old were you when you started cooking?

I was about 7 or 8. I have one brother before me, and then there were three girls. I was the older one. We took care of each other. You had to cook to eat. And we had no refrigerator at that time, 65 years ago.


Where do you get inspiration for your recipes?

I learned everything from my mother. I make lasagna, manicotti, cavatelli, spaghetti. Now I make some things I learned in America.


Like what?

I remember once we had a little party, and my friend brought a nice dish — chicken a la marsala — and I said, “Oh, that looks nice. Can you give me the recipe for this?” And she gave me the recipe.


Gina tomato sauce
Gina Petitti makes her traditional tomato sauce in her daughter’s basement once a year. With the help of her children, she prepares more than 200 jars of sauce, which she adds to almost all of her recipes. (Photo courtesy of Maria Testa)


How did you decide to start making videos?

My daughter said, “Ma, you know a lot of things to cook, why don’t you cook something, and we have a few memories?” I said, “All right,” because I was retired. I made a pizza the first time. My son lives far away from me, and my son-in-law sent the video to him, and they said, “You make nice things, why don’t you put it for everybody to see?” When I saw the video, I said, “Oh, my goodness, is that me?” I said, “Let me show everybody they got to cook.”


What is your routine with the videos?

It’s once a month. When I started, we did it every two weeks, then every three weeks, and now it’s a slower pace.


How do you feel knowing that more than 1 million people watch your videos now?

“Tutto il mondo!” (All the world!) I feel so good. I’m happy that people like what I make, that they learn, too, and cook my food.


Gina Petitti after making linguine with clams. (Photo courtesy of Maria Testa)


How was cooking with your sisters recently?

One sister is in Canada, and the other one is a nun and lives in New Jersey. We are so great together. We have a lot of memories of when we were young. Sometimes we would fight, because I am the older one, you know, and sometimes the other ones didn’t want to listen to me. I would say, “Stop playing, get the water, get the flour.” (Laughs.)


You make the sign of the cross before you start cooking. How did this custom start?

Because of my mother, oh my. My mother and my grandmother. To thank God and ask the recipe to grow. My mother prepared everything and then made the sign of the cross. I’ll never forget.


You also sing a lot while you are cooking. How did you learn to do that?

Oh, I sing all the time. I was in the farm when I was a teenager, and I used to sing because of my brother. He sings beautifully. But now we have TV, radio. Nobody sings anymore because they watch all of this stuff. Years ago, we had nothing, and we sang (church hymns). It was natural.


What are your plans for 2023?

We get to do more recipes, with pork. I grew up with it. We made salsiccia  (sausage), prosciutto, all the pig. My grandchildren don’t like it, but I like to make it because I want them to see the tradition.


What else should people know about you?

Every time I make a video, my grandchildren love me so much. (Laughs.) I am so happy. I have a lovely family. They love me, and I love them. That’s my life, you know.


Carolina Baldin is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @RuizBaldin.