When two Melbourne brothers lost their mother, the remarkable Yiayia Next Door cooked to help them cope. Now they’ve published a cookbook together
Luke and Daniel Mancuso have been through hell. But it is their return journey that makes them so remarkable.
In 2013, the Melbourne brothers lost their mother, Teresa, to an incomprehensible act of domestic violence committed by their father in the house where she grew up.
It was their neighbor, a yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”) called Nina, who sounded the alarm. “I will never forget that day,” Yiayia said, through glassy eyes. “I knew something was wrong. I called Teresa – no answer. I was shaking. I had something to do.”
Two years later, Luke and Daniel moved into the house – once their grandmother’s – not without trepidation, but because it was something their mother had always wanted for them.
“I can’t tell you how difficult it was at first,” says Daniel.
Luke adds: “Your mind races, you hear a noise, you take out the trash late at night and you look over your shoulder.
But the presence of Yiayia, who had known them since they were little, helped make the transition bearable, says Daniel. “Having a real grandmother figure living next door put our hearts at ease…She took us under her wing and said, ‘I’ll take care of you.'”
Expressing love through food – as grandmothers in any culture tend to do – she began hoisting homemade Greek dishes to the boys over the back fence.
What was second nature to Yiayia, however, was too healthy for the internet to handle. Especially in times of Covid. The story has been widely shared since Luke and Daniel began documenting it on a dedicated Instagram account. @yiayianextdoor, which now has more than 70,000 subscribers. But his next chapter is more tangible.
The trio distilled their culinary memories into a cookbook, Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia’s Kitchen and the True Story of One Woman’s Incredible Act of Kindness.
It thrones on the kitchen table of the brothers when Large format sightseeing on a drizzly fall morning. On the side: a plate of bright, grilled red and green peppers – from the cookbook – and fresh bread, prepared in advance by Yiayia. (Luke insists I leave with a brown paper bag full of fresh peppers to roast myself at home.)
In the dining room, Luke, Daniel and Yiayia, aprons firmly tied, cheekily banter – without wasting time. Like family. “A big celebrity around here!” Daniel said. “He’s lying, I’m not that famous,” she says deadpan. There’s an easy love in the air, but you can tell it’s deep.
Their brown-brick home, located on a leafy suburban thoroughfare in North Melbourne, has no shortage of old-school Italian, right down to the original kitchen tiles. But they made it theirs. A letter board in the kitchen reads: “It’s a beautiful day to live”.
Words for Living rings truer as we approach the cookbook’s April 26 release date.
Punctuated with great stories and images, the book covers the gamut of Yiayia’s recipe arsenal – from everyday dinners to special occasion dishes, to comforting Greek classics like spanakopita, moussaka and baklava. . But, says Luke, “The ones that hit us are the simplest, because those are the ones Yiayia cooked for us in the beginning, like chicken and rice. It takes you back to that first time.
However, not all recipes are those of Yiayia. Some were contributed by members of the Yiayia Next Door community. But perhaps most significant is the cannelloni, a dish the boys’ mother learned to make in Yiayia. Although it’s just a version of the original, “we’re still eating one of mom’s home-cooked meals thanks to Yiayia,” says Daniel. “It’s the best.” And a QR code takes you to a video tutorial, so Yiayia can show you how it’s done herself.
Faced with tragedy, the book is a triumph; Turning the worst thing that has ever happened to you into such a show of resilience would leave any mother beaming with awe. “She would tell everyone under the sun how proud she is. ‘Have you seen my boys’ cookbook, the articles, them on TV?’ Not to be silent, I would say, Daniel said, his face lit up. “Even though they didn’t ask,” adds Luke looking at his brother. “She lived for us.
When it’s just Yiayia and me, she bends over, brushes my forearm and makes sure I understand: “She was really beautiful, their mom. She takes care of us from up there.
Online, Yiayia’s face is always obscured — by the fence, an emoji, or a nifty camera — to protect her privacy. In a way, it’s a shame; if only you could see the pure joy in the way she wrinkles her face in laughter. But being faceless means “everyone can see something they know in her,” says Daniel. “Whether they’re dead or they’re still here… We get so many comments saying, ‘She reminds me of my yiayia’, about her voice, her food, her laugh or her cheeky little jokes. They will always say something nice. They can watch their yiayia if they can’t.
Ultimately, it’s a story of connection. First, between two grieving boys and “the angel over the fence”. Then between them and a thriving online community. And now for you and those you choose to reach or gather, using these recipes as a conduit.
“If someone had told me before mum passed away that this is what I was going to be going through, I don’t think I would have wanted to live in a world like this,” says Luke.
“But what Yiayia Next Door taught me is that if you have a good community around you, you can go through anything.”
Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia’s Kitchen and the True Story of One Woman’s Incredible Act of Kindness edited by Plum, is available in line for $36.99.