Creating opportunity
A Restaurant Run by Nonnas (or Grandmothers, for the Uninitiated)
Free Enterprise Staff | May 12, 2015

New York City’s Enoteca Maria looks like your average Italian restaurant, and in many ways it is. Yet, if you eat there, you’ll quickly notice how it’s very different from the city’s thousands of restaurants: Its chefs are old enough to be your grandmother. And for some people, they actually are—Enoteca Maria’s chefs are a group of Italian American ‘nonnas’—grandmothers, for wise guys who aren’t in the know—who cook food the old fashioned way.

For these entrepreneurial grandmothers, the old fashioned way of cooking involves recreating the food they ate when they were children in their native Italy. Because the women are all from different regions of the country, the food you’ll eat at Enoteca Maria varies from each of the five nights a week it’s open for business.

On a recent May evening, for instance, anyone lucky enough to score a reservation at the restaurant—which is located on Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs—enjoyed a tasting of Southern Italian specialties. That night’s executive chef, Nonna Adelena, of Naples, Italy, prepared a menu that included Prosciutto con Ananas—slices of seasoned pineapple wrapped in prosciutto di Parma—and Coda di Vitello—tender veal tails braised in white wine with lemon zest, onions, and peas—among other mouthwatering dishes.

Adelena is one of 10 nonnas who currently staff Enoteca Maria. Patrons can thank the restaurant’s owner, Jody Scaravella, for that. The lifelong New Yorker came up with the idea for Enoteca Maria after his mother passed away. Longing for the home-cooked meals and dinnertime conversation he had grown up with, Scaravella decided to open a restaurant that would bring to the masses something that was so intimate and personal for him.

Scaravella then placed an advertisement in America Oggi, an Italian American newspaper based in Brooklyn. It didn’t take long thereafter for Scaravella to hear from a number of interested nonnas, all of whom were eager to share food from their childhoods. How did Scaravella decide whom to hire for his restaurant? As he told NPR, he has a unique screening method for candidates, one that doesn’t involve any sort of cooking demonstration.

“If I talk to them for five minutes, I know if they can cook or they can’t cook,” he said. “I just get a feeling, you know. And I’m usually right on. I’ll ask them certain questions, like … what food they grew up with. What food their mother made for them.”

The kinds of dishes that Enoteca Maria specializes in aren’t the standards most people in the U.S. are familiar with. For instance, you’re more likely to find braised pigs feet served with red sauce than you are spaghetti with meatballs. The food is, after all, authentic Italian, which can be somewhat surprising to the unacquainted diner.

That’s not to say that you’ll leave Enoteca Maria disappointed with the food you ordered. A meal prepared by Nonna Francesca, a native of Calabria—a region in southwestern Italy—could include some more popular items like baked clams or freshly made sausage. It can also veer into the exotic—or the familiar, depending on the person—if you choose the lamb hearts, the breaded sweetbreads, or the sliced beef testicles as your main course.

As its nonnas will attest, it’s these kinds of dishes that truly elevate Enoteca Maria above other Italian restaurants. As Nonna Francesca told On Point host Tom Ashbrook: “We put everything we learn from our grandmothers into the food. That’s what makes it special.”

The strategy seems to be working well for Scaravella and Enoteca Maria. The restaurant has flourished since it opened its doors, luring visitors—who, to reach the borough, must either drive or take the Staten Island ferry—and causing quite a stir within its local community as well as the deeply competitive New York City dining world.

The latest manifestation of Enoteca Maria’s success came earlier this spring, when Scaravella released a cookbook featuring the recipes of his increasingly famous nonnas. The book, “Nonna’s House: Cooking and Reminiscing With the Italian Grandmothers of Enoteca Maria,” quickly shot up the ranks on Amazon’s best sellers lists.

A native of Agrigento, Sicily, Nonna Teresa Scalici recently demonstrated how to cook her recipe for sweet manicotti on My Fox New York. If you want to channel your inner nonna, make sure to check out the recipe she shared on the local broadcast channel’s morning show.

Whether you come for the food or to catch a glimpse of the nonnas at work, Enoteca Maria shows how a unique idea can quickly turn into a thriving business—and even a great place to eat.

Ingredients

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1½ tablespoons plus ½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

Cooking spray

3 cups whole-milk or low-fat ricotta

1 cup blueberries

1 cup sliced hulled strawberries

Store-bought chocolate sauce, for garnish

Directions

1. Whisk the eggs, 1½ tablespoons of the sugar, the oil, and vanilla with 1 cup water in a medium bowl until smooth. Whisk in the flour a little at a time, until you have a thin pancake batter.

2. Coat an 8-inch nonstick skillet with cooking spray and set over medium-low heat for a minute or two. Pour in 2 tablespoons of the batter; swirl the skillet to form an even, thin crepe. Cook for 1 minute, then use tongs to peel up and flip the crepe. Cook until golden, about 20 seconds. Transfer to a plate or cutting board and continue making more crepes, piling them one on top of another.

3. Stir the ricotta and the remaining ½ cup sugar in a second medium bowl until the sugar dissolves. Lay a crepe on a clean work surface; fill with 2 tablespoons of the sweetened ricotta and 2 tablespoons of either blueberries or strawberries (or a combination). Roll up, continue stuffing the remainder of the crepes, and drizzle with chocolate sauce to serve.