"Just like grandma used to make" is much more than a clever advertising scheme, it's literally what's happening at Staten Island's Enoteca Maria, where the kitchen's staffed not by professionally trained chefs, but by a fleet of "nonnas" from around the world. For about a decade, owner Jody Scaravella has opened his kitchens to grandmothers cooking the cuisines of their native countries. It started with just Italian grandmothers, after his own heritage, but has since expanded to include dozens of women from places like Argentina, Algeria, Syria, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Liberia, and Nigeria.
Scaravella got his first recruits by placing an ad in an Italian newspaper seeking "Italian housewives to cook regional dishes," but over time, his roster has grown by references and word of mouth. "I talked to everybody when somebody gets in, we talk about the concept, I always ask them if you know somebody who wants to cook," he said. "The concept has just mushroomed." Though some nonnas are Staten Islanders, most come from Brooklyn, with some traveling from as far as New Jersey and The Bronx to cook at the restaurant.
While the nonnas are the big draw, the restaurant also employs one male "nonno," Giuseppe Freya from Calabria, who makes all the pasta. "He makes the raviolis, he makes the ricotta gnocchi, he makes tagliatelle, he makes the pasta sheets for our lasagna," Scaravella explained. "He's fantastic."
There's the old adage about too many cooks, so do the nonnas get along? "Each one of these [Italian] grandmothers feels like they're the boss, because in their particular family unit, they're at the top of that pyramid. So when you put all of these grandmothers that are all at the top in a room together, they all feel like they're in charge and they're all wondering what that other person is doing there," Scaravella joked. "It can get dicey."
Friendly competition in the kitchen aside, the nonnas are a beloved fixture of the community, which hopefully can weather this development storm without too much upheaval. The restaurant even attracts customers from around the world—and they don't need a fancy ferris wheel to do it.
"I regularly get phone calls from Australia, from England, and from Italy to book reservations. I'm always flattered by that," Scaravella said. "We get a lot of people who come from Manhattan, the ferry is right down the block. That's also very flattering, because there's a restaurant every twenty feet in Manhattan. Why are they coming here?"
They're coming for a home-cooked meal and an experience—grandma's cooking—they might not be able to have with their own nonnas anymore. "Usually at the end of the day, the people will applaud the nonnas that have cooked for them," Scaravella beamed. "They get standing ovations on a regular basis and it's really something nice."
Enoteca Maria is located at 27 Hyatt Street in the St. George section of Staten Island, just a few minutes walk from the ferry terminal. (718) 447-2777; enotecamaria.com. Cash only.