Italian home food: Cucina Aperta
Cucina Aperta: In a bid to save Italian cuisine, home kitchens open to the public. Rebecca Rose reports.

As FT Weekend revealed last week, the decline of home cooking in Italy is nothing short of a national crisis. But it's not too late: there is at least one surviving generation of Italiansstill doing things by the book – and not the packet. Dotted across the country, these remaining custodians of secret familyrecipes require protection and encouragement.

A group of Italians with influential links to the University of Bologna are taking this crucial part of their heritage into their own hands. Their project, Home Food, set up earlier this year, has tracked down some of these custodians and persuaded them to open up their kitchens and invite people to sample their expertise and experience a bit of homespun Italian culture. The brainchild of Dr Egeria di Nallo, chairman of the university's department of sociology, the Home Food initiative is endorsed by both the university and the ministry of agriculture.
Along with such stalwart support, Home Food has drafted an equally weighty manifesto: "For the Protection and Increase The Value of the Gastronomic Heritage of Typical Italian Cuisine." (sic) If it sounds serious-minded, it is indeed serious - about eating and the culture of conviviality.

Since January, the Home Food team has been vetting the culinary skills of home cooks all around the country, to see if they make the grade. The requirements are simple yet stringent: "The Association will appraise the level of hospitality, the adherence to the gastronomic culture of the area and the culinary ability." If all the boxes are ticked, the newly chosen Cesarina (an affectionate term adopted by Home Food for their cooks, meaning "empress of the kitchen") must work out how many covers she can manage around her dining table, and which days of the week she is available to cook. (A male Cesarino is apparently a rare find but Home Food is not ruling out the possibility.)

Cesarine are deliberately chosen from across the social spectrum, and are divided into four categories: popular, middle class and aristocratic, in which there are, curiously, two levels. This creates a variety of social and culinary experiences ranging from a meal in a mamma's modest kitchen to a courtly dinner in an aristocrat's residence (and the price of the dinner escalates according to the social category).

But it is not just the Cesarine who are vetted. In order to join the association and be invited to dine, the potential guest must be checked out too, to protect the Cesarine from the ungracious visitor. A short questionnaire is required in which the guest must promise to turn up on time, be a grateful invitee and report any complaints directly to Home Food so as to spare the Cesarine any upset.

So far, Home Food has caused quite a stir. It has notched up about 300 Italian soci (guests or partners), and is recruiting from the Rotary Club and other such institutions. There is now a bevy of 50 Cesarine positioned across the length of Italy, as far as Sicily, and more are being contacted every week.

About 20 of the Cesarine are to be found in and around Bologna. One of the star turns is a level one Cesarina, Elisa, a vibrant 64-year-old, living with her husband Mauro in a Bolognese tower block. We were warmly welcomed into her bright, clean flat, with its paintings in the style of Morandi and a marvellous view over the hillside monastery of San Lucca - and invited to sit around her simply laid dining table.

A carefully translated menu was presented to us and Elisa proudly brought out the primo, none other than that most traditional of Bolognese dishes, Tagliatelle al ragu (which we have bastardised into Spaghetti Bolognese). The real thing, however, is made from home-made pasta, and always tagliatelle, no more than 8mm thick (there are strict rules about such things). It is served with a ragu made from minced veal, carrots, celery and a slug of white wine, simmered for nine hours. There is no hint of tomato, or heaven forbid tomato puree.

Elisa's familial twist on this eternal theme is to add a green tinge to the tagliatelle dough, with nettle-buds picked early that morning from the hillside - a childhood tradition. The pasta was sublime and there was plenty of it. Our bowls were refilled several times - there is no arguing with a mamma on this front.

Elisa was as smiling and charismatic as you could possibly hope for: "I cooked all day, except from when I went to bed with my husband at around 2.30pm," she told us laughingly. Mauro barely made an appearance, as he was glued to the football, blaring loudly from a TV in Elisa's spotless kitchen.

The tagliatelle was followed by meatballs and stuffed tomatoes. When we were fit to burst, the meal's crowning glory arrived: the Torta di Riso, a rice pudding with a delicate caramelised flavour, divided up and speared with forks. The presentation of these burnished morsels, a traditional Eucharist treat, nearly brought tears to the eyes of some of our fellow Italian diners who had barely seen or eaten them since they were children.

Elisa filled us in on the significance of every course in detail, including methods and ingredients but, sensibly, would not part with all of her secret flourishes. At the end of the night, flushed with wine from her brother's vineyard, we staggered out into the warm June air, not before being embraced by our hosts as if we were one of the famiglia.

The next day, we sampled a level-four experience at a splendid villa just outside Bologna. The lunch began outside in the dappled shade of the plane trees with a small glass of fizzy wine, hunks of parmigiano and whimsical Baroque ditties played on the recorder and flute by a couple of local musicians. With a view over the lawn and plane trees (more park than lawn), and the chatter of our vivacious hosts Christiana, Benedetta and Angela, I felt like I had been superimposed in a romantic pastorale. I half expected a satyr to wander over and nibble at the parmigiano.

The meal and culinary banter was grander and longer than Elisa's feast, with frequent references to Pellegrino Artusi, the 19th-century cookery guru, whose hefty tome is still the Italian kitchen bible today. The menu was refreshingly old fashioned - the sort of dishes that would have long since disappeared from the country house in England: Aspic di pollo - an Artusi classic - a perfect fluted mould of chicken, eggs, tongue and vegetables held together with delicate, transparent aspic; Cotolette alla Bolognese - breaded veal made only from six-month-old female calves.

Each course was gargantuan, and introduced with deserved showmanship. I felt safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't find any of the dishes on the menu at the local trattoria, nor would I be able to knock them up at home, sadly. Returning to the baking heat of the city later that day, I had the feeling that a level-four lunch was a taste of a life that was almost too good.

For Italians, Home Food offers a "chance to immerge (sic) oneself in lost dimensions which rediscover a conviviality from former times". For the visitor to Italy, it is more than that: an entirely new experience, and a rare opportunity to get close to the heart of another culture. It is a bit like visiting old friends – except that you have never met and are not obliged to meet again – but who will take you into the fold, and feed and water you, as if you were one of their own.