Every day, Jody Scaravella pours a glass of wine in honor of his late parents and displays it on a cabinet at his restaurant as a token of appreciation for a mother that has indirectly helped him launch his vibrant restaurant in the underdog borough of Staten Island.
Open since 2007, Enoteca Maria, has become an institution with a dual menu: a fixed Italian side, a second that showcases a rotation of grandma chefs from all over the world, who take over the kitchen to cook foods native to their cultures. They’re turning out the sort of fare that, as Scaravella puts it, “your mother made for you when you were a little girl.”
But changes are afoot. Now open four nights a week once the staff returns from vacation on Thursday, the owner announced that as of their return, they’ll only be serving on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays while working on plans to release a line of international nonna-approved food products.
Scaravella, who refers to all the cooks as nonnas, credits his mom with the origins of Enoteca Maria: “I lost my grandmother 23 years ago. I lost my mother about 15 years ago and I lost my sister about 14 years ago,” he said. “So I was just trying to recreate having a nonna in the kitchen cooking. I named it after my mom Maria because she left me a little bit of money when she passed away.”
When he first opened, Scaravella, who goes by Joe, only sought out Italian grandmothers, as a tribute to his own family. Eventually, his concept expanded in 2015. “Our first international nonna here was from Pakistan,” he said.
The decision to start featuring other cuisines eased tensions between the Italian grandmas, whose passion for cooking seeped into their relationships with each other.
“There was a lot [of competition], and they’re ruthless,” Scaravella said. “We had times when one lady would make, say, cookies, and then, when she wasn’t there, the other lady would come and break the cookies.”
As the middleman, Scaravella “had to explain to them that you’re not hurting [the other] by breaking her cookies, you’re hurting [me].” Now, “they can’t be jealous of each other,” he said about the roster of 30 to 40 women he employs, “because they don’t know what the other person is doing” and are cooking completely different foods.
Today, the fixed Italian portion of it is solely cooked by Adelina Orazzo Casola, the quintessential Italian grandmother cooking guru. “I was in America for 15 years and my niece saw the paper and said that this restaurant on Staten Island is looking for a grandma that knows how to cook,” she recalled in a thick Neapolitan accent. “We came, I spoke to Joe and he hired me right away. And I said: ‘What do I have to do? Is there a menu?’ He said no. And I said: ‘But what if people don’t like it?’’
Over a decade later, she’s still here, spending her workday making dishes like pasta aglio e olio, the classic Italian dish made with loads of garlic, oil, and, in true Neapolitan form, fresh tomato sauce; branzino with a side of perfectly prepared and seasoned vegetables; and eggplants stuffed with rice. (“Here they like them like that,” she said about the vegetarian dish. “I can’t make them the Italian way, with meat.”)
The second kitchen is upstairs, visible to tourists who flock to the borough to taste the ever-changing fare. The website is updated daily with the nonna of the day, and the last table is seated at 8:30 p.m. It’s a new grandma every night: from Puerto Rico to Egypt, France, Japan, and Syria, a rainbow of dishes have been concocted here.
Some cooks are scheduled to take over once a month, some multiple times a week, and others just once a year. Most of them reach out to Scaravella directly to claim a spot. In terms of vetting, the owner details a one-step process: “I just talk to them.” Take the grandma from Azerbaijan, who recently started at the restaurant: “She comes in with this rolling pan and she goes, ‘Let me get in the kitchen, I want to show you what I can do.’ You could see that she was on fire, that she wanted to share her food so I knew she was for real.”
He has yet to open his kitchen to a nonno. “I have toyed with the idea,” he said, “ but I got my hands full right now.”