After all the food is served at this New York restaurant, customers clap for the grandmother who cooked it. It’s not scripted, but it happens every night.
The Staten Island establishment, run by women known as “nonnas of the world,” is as much a celebration of the people who toil in the kitchen as the places they hail from.
It’s become so popular, you can’t just walk in for a meal. Getting a table requires a reservation several weeks in advance.
There are about a dozen women who cook regularly at Enoteca Maria, a casual 30-seat Italian eatery. Its menu is made and executed by a rotating group of international women, most of whom are matriarchs.
The nonnas – the Italian word for grandmothers – include Maria Gialanella, 88. She has amassed such a following that some customers come only on nights they know she is in the kitchen. She even has her own Instagram page.
Seeing strangers taste her culinary creations, she said, gives her immense pleasure and pride.
“Everybody likes it, so I’m very happy,” said Gialanella, an Italian immigrant known for making ravioli by hand, rich ragus, soups and other family recipes she learned growing up near Naples.
Gialanella, who moved to the United States in 1961 and worked as a seamstress, said that 10 years ago, her daughter heard about Enoteca Maria and encouraged her to become a cook there.
“It’s nice with the other nonnas,” said Gialanella, who has six grandchildren. “I like every food.”
Restaurant owner Joe Scaravella is a huge fan.
“She is not even 5 feet tall, but she’s a powerhouse,” said Scaravella, who opened the eatery in 2007. “She goes around and does selfies. She spends the night hugging people.”
Initially, you had to be an Italian grandmother like Gialanella to join the kitchen staff, but about nine years ago, Scaravella decided to broaden the cooking criteria.
“They just have to be women that can bring their culture forward,” he explained, adding that the cooks – all of whom are called “nonna” by patrons, regardless of their background – range in age from 50 to 90, and possess a deep knowledge of their culture’s unique cuisine. While most are grandmothers, some are not.
The nonnas come from around the world: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Puerto Rico, Italy, Germany, Greece, Poland, Armenia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Egypt, and Trinidad and Tobago. The list goes on.
Yumi Komatsudaira cooks traditional Japanese cuisine at Enoteca Maria. Although she does not have grandchildren, she, too, of course, is called nonna. The designation delights her.
“Everybody is so friendly there, it’s like a family feeling,” said Komatsudaira, who is in her mid-50s and has a 17-year-old son.
She specializes in traditional Japanese delicacies such as dumplings, dengaku (made with vegetables and miso) and endless noodle preparations, ranging from savory to sweet.
In the beginning, the restaurant served only Italian fare – to reflect Scaravella’s roots. He opened the eatery after losing several family members, including his grandmother and his mother, both born in Italy, as well as his sister. They were all excellent cooks, he said.
“The real story behind this place is grief – my own personal grief after losing a lot of my family, and trying to re-create them,” said Scaravella, 67, whose long gray beard and small oval glasses make him instantly recognizable around the St. George neighborhood. “That was what it was all driven by.”
At the time, Scaravella had spent more than 17 years working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and had no experience running a restaurant – let alone working in one.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “No business plan or anything.”
On a whim, he used the money his mother, Maria, had left behind to purchase a vacant storefront and decided to name his new restaurant after her. There is a clear link, he said, between food and family.
Scaravella wanted his restaurant to serve the traditional Italian classics that he was desperately missing. It was the women in his family who dominated the kitchen.
“There were a lot of ladies at home that had all this information,” said Scaravella. His mother and grandmother, for instance, knew “the secret to a good meat ball” and “how to repurpose stale bread.”
“My whole life, I never wanted to go to an Italian restaurant, because it just never hit the spot,” he continued. “These ladies, they’re the source. They are the vessels that carry this information forward.”
Given that his own matriarchs were gone, Scaravella embarked on a quest to find some nonnas who could prepare authentic, warming meals. He knew they wouldn’t take the place of his family, but he thought perhaps their food might help to fill the void.
Before opening the restaurant, Scaravella put an advertisement in the local Italian American newspaper, seeking nonnas who could cook regional dishes from different parts of Italy. He was stunned by the response.
“I invited these ladies to my home. They showed up with plates of food,” said Scaravella. “That was really the birthplace of the idea.”
From there, he opened Enoteca Maria’s doors, staffing the kitchen with genuine nonnas who prepared everything from lasagna to chicken cacciatore. The concept, Scaravella said, was meant to mimic the experience of going to his nonna’s house for a meal.
“There’s a certain safeness when you go to your grandmother’s house, generally,” he explained. “That is a strong memory and it’s very comforting, and I just really needed to be comforted.”
The restaurant quickly took off. A few years later, Scaravella began inviting grandmothers from other cultures to cook their classics in his kitchen, and it got even busier.
“There are so many different people from so many different cultures,” he said. “It just made sense to feature everybody’s grandmother.”
Today, Enoteca Maria has two kitchens – one for its in-house chefs, who prepare Italian cuisine – and another, for the visiting nonna. Sometimes, there are two visiting nonnas on duty. The restaurant is open Friday through Sunday, and, aside from some Italian staples, the menu is different every day – depending on a nonna’s specialties. People are advised to book reservations at least two weeks in advance, as there is often a lengthy wait list.
Given the variety of cuisines that are offered and the range of ingredients needed, the restaurant can be challenging to run, Scaravella explained. Still, he said, “I love what I do.”
Scaravella and the restaurant manager, Paola Vento, organize the weekly schedule and work with the nonnas to determine the menu. Typically, visiting nonnas are hired to cook at the restaurant about once a month, Scaravella said, though some come more often, and others come only once or twice a year.
“My favorite part of the job is getting to work with the grandmothers,” said Vento, adding that the daily highlight is when customers clap for the visiting nonnas at the end of the evening. “You have to see the faces of the nonnas. They are so proud and so excited that they were able to share a part of their culture through food.”
Many of the nonnas, Vento said, have become close friends. Although they speak different languages and come from different places, they have found ways to bond – mainly, through food.
“There’s a lot of love in the room,” she said.
To become a visiting nonna, there is one criteria: “They have to have a love for cooking, and that’s it,” Vento said.
While there is no required test, many prospective cooks attend a one-on-one free class offered at the restaurant called “nonnas in training.”
Komatsudaira signed up for a session six years ago, and despite having no experience working in a restaurant, she was immediately hooked. She has been a regular visiting nonna at the restaurant ever since and recently wrote a cookbook called “Japanese Superfoods.”
When she began working at Enoteca Maria, “I started feeling so much passion about sharing my Japanese heritage,” she said, adding that her grandmother is “one of the strongest influences” on her cooking.
While Scaravella misses his own nonna, he said that his heart – and stomach – feel full again. What started as an effort to reconnect with his roots has allowed others to do the same.
“It’s hundreds of years of culture coming out of those fingertips,” he said. “It’s beautiful stuff.”