Nothing brings people together like a home-cooked meal.
There are over 26,000 restaurants in New York City, and they resort to all manner of gimmicks?—?from singing waitstaff to blindfolding customers?—?to set themselves apart. But most of these themed eateries are no match for Enoteca Maria, an Italian wine bar and restaurant in Staten Island that boasts a cooking staff made up entirely of grandmas.
When owner Jody Scaravalla founded the restaurant 12 years ago, he was still mourning the loss of three important women in his life?—?his mother, his grandmother and his sister.
“I think subconsciously I was just trying to patch those holes in my life,” he tells Gothamist. “And seeing an Italian grandmother in the kitchen, cooking, was my idea of comfort.”
So Scaravalla started looking for employees. He did it the old fashioned way?—?by placing an ad in an Italian newspaper, requesting “Italian housewives to cook regional dishes.” He currently employs a rotating roster of Nonnas, the Italian word for grandmother. In July, he branched out to other nationalities, finding new talent through referrals and word of mouth.
Now, Enoteca Maria features two Nonnas every day?—?one who’s Italian and one who’s from another part of the world. The restaurant also employs one “Nonno,” Giuseppe Freya from Cambria, who makes all of the restaurant’s pasta from scratch.
The chefs use broken English to communicate, aided by the restaurant’s staff of multilingual waiters. Scaravalla estimates that 30 different cultures are represented, with Nonnas hailing from places as far away as Argentina, Algeria, Syria, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Liberia and the Palestinian Territories. Some live on Staten Island while others commute, some from as far away as New Jersey.
All this for the chance to share their family recipes, passed down from generation to generation.
Enoteca Maria books up frequently; visitors come from Australia, England and Italy to secure reservations months in advance. Customers jump at the chance for a home-cooked meal; the opportunity to celebrate diversity by consuming hundreds of years’ worth of culture is just a delicious side dish.
Staffing a restaurant with grandmothers is not only a lucrative business model, it’s also a great opportunity for the chefs. A 2015 study from the University of Miami suggests that seniors who work are in better health than their retired counterparts. And the chefs at Enoteca Maria put in a lot of work, with each meal requiring up to five hours to prepare.
With business booming, Scaravalla recently branched out to include daily, free cooking classes with the Nonnas?—?but there’s a catch. Per the restaurant’s website, you don’t get to choose the nationality of the Nonna you study under.
In a world where it often feels as if our differences divide us, it’s refreshing to remember that nothing unites us quite like a home-cooked meal. Especially when it’s made with love.