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A restaurant in NYC hires grandmothers to cook from their native cuisine

New York City has no shortage of celebrated, Michelin-starred restaurants. Enoteca Maria does things a little differently.

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A restaurant in NYC hires grandmothers to cook from their native cuisine
Photo by Youtube/Localish

If you’re in New York and hankering for Italian food, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx are all fabled for their Italian American populations, as well as pockets of Manhattan. Almost a third of the inhabitants of Staten Island are also of Italian descent.

This means that you’d be right to expect to find pizza and pasta on the menu of Enoteca Maria, a small family-run restaurant located in St. George. You will – but you’ll also have the opportunity to experience a range of other international cuisines. 50% of the daily menu is traditional Italian fare, made with all the panache and care that you’d expect. Depending on when you visit, however, the menu will also offer options from Japan, Pakistan, Russia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the list goes on.

Enoteca Maria isn’t the bizarre and unholy fusion restaurant beloved of hipsters. Instead, this is all part of the business model of the restaurant’s owner, Joe Scaravella. A revolving door of local grandmothers (or, “nonnas,” if you Parla Italiano) are invited to share the recipes of their homeland. It’s a unique approach and one that’s born of emotional circumstances. Watch the video below.

Scaravella bought a Dutch colonial cottage in Staten Island back in 2006. He was moving on from Brooklyn, following a string of personal tragedies. Scaravella had lost his grandmother, sister, and mother in quick succession. While exploring his new surroundings, he noticed a restaurant available for sale. On impulse, Scaravella purchased the property. The name was a tribute to his dearly departed mother.

Contemplating his losses, Scaravella started to consider how much he missed the female figures in his life. He had grown up surrounded by strong women, and like all Italians, food was a major part of family life. Scaravella acknowledged that other people, from a range of ethnicities, would be experiencing similar loss. They would no doubt be pining for the simple comforts of a home-cooked meal from their grandmother. Scaravella decided to eschew the hiring of professional chefs to provide this service.

When Enoteca Maria opened its doors, Scaravella invited a range of Italian nonnas to create dishes in the kitchen. No previous restaurant experience was required. Just a passion and understanding of the importance of good, comforting food. That led to a degree of conflict, though. Just who was preparing the best meal? Who had perfected their tomato sauce? Who had found the perfect balance of garlic and herbs?

To cut down on conflict – and offer similar comfort to diners from other backgrounds – Scaravella widened his criteria. In 2015, he invited a woman from Pakistan to prepare something from her own family history. When this proved successful, a range of different ethnicities followed suit. Conflict was eradicated, as these amateur chefs traded tips and ingredients from their respective cultures.

These days, there is no way of knowing what may be on the Enoteca Maria menu. Some customers will be tucking into Japanese dumplings, while others will be enjoying an Eastern European goulash. However, there’s still space for a lovingly prepared lasagne. The restaurant even offers cooking lessons for anybody keen to learn how to cook exotic dishes.

There’s just one downside to the variety on offer at Enoteca Maria – it has led to a demand that outstrips available space. If you’re planning a trip to Staten Island, make sure you book way in advance. Every table is usually reserved for weeks in advance. You may not know what’s on the menu when you arrive, but you can sure of one thing. It will be prepared with love and attention, and taste just like grandma’s home cooking.

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