It has become so popular that you can’t just walk in for a meal. To get a table you need to book several weeks in advance.
There are about a dozen women who regularly cook at Enoteca Maria, a 30-seat casual Italian eatery. The menu is created 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’s gathered such a following that some patrons only come on nights they know she’s in the kitchen. She even has her own Instagram page.
It gives her immense pleasure and pride to watch strangers taste her culinary creations, she said.
“Everyone likes it, so I’m very happy,” says Gialanella, an Italian immigrant known for hand-making ravioli, 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 her daughter heard about Enoteca Maria 10 years ago and encouraged her to become a chef there.
“It’s fun with the other nonnas,” said Gialanella, who has six grandchildren. “Love every dish.”
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Restaurant owner Joe Scaravella is a big fan.
“She’s under five feet tall, but she’s a powerhouse,” said Scaravella, who opened the eatery in 2007. “She goes around taking selfies. She spends the night hugging people.”
In the beginning you had to be an Italian granny like Gialanella to get into the kitchen staff, but about nine years ago, Scaravella decided to broaden the cooking criteria.
“It just has to be women who can bring out their culture,” he explained, adding that the chefs — all of whom are referred to as “nonna” by customers regardless of background — range in age from 50 to 90, and have an in-depth knowledge of the unique cuisine of their culture. While most are grandmothers, some are not.
The nonnas come from all over 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 dishes at Enoteca Maria. Although she has no grandchildren, she is also called nonna, of course. The title delights her.
“Everyone is so friendly there, it’s like a family feeling,” says Komatsudaira, who is in her mid-50s and has a 17-year-old son.
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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 only served Italian dishes – to reflect Scaravella’s roots. He opened the eatery after losing several relatives, 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 recreate them,” says Scaravella, 67, whose long gray beard and small oval glasses make him instantly recognizable around the St. George Neighborhood. “It was all driven by that.”
At the time, Scaravella had worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for over 17 years 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 left by his mother, Maria, to buy a vacant storefront and decided to name his new restaurant after her. There is a clear connection, he said, between food and family.
Scaravella wanted his restaurant to serve the traditional Italian classics he was desperately missing. It was the women in his family who dominated the kitchen.
“There were a lot of ladies at home who had all this information,” Scaravella said. For example, his mother and grandmother knew “the secret of a good meatball” and “how to give old bread a new purpose.”
“All my life I’ve never wanted to go to an Italian restaurant because it just never got right,” he continued. “These ladies are the source. They are the vessels that bring this information forward.”
With his own matriarchs gone, Scaravella set out on a quest to find some nonnas who could prepare authentic, hot meals. He knew they wouldn’t take his family’s place, but he thought their food might help fill the void.
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Before opening the restaurant, Scaravella placed an ad in the local Italian-American newspaper, looking for nonnas who could prepare 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,” Scaravella said. “That was really the birthplace of the idea.”
From there, he opened the doors of Enoteca Maria and staffed the kitchen with actual nonnas preparing 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.
“In general, there’s a sense of security when you go to your grandmother’s house,” he explained. “That’s a strong memory and it’s very comforting, and I just really needed to be comforted.”
The restaurant took off quickly. A few years later, Scaravella began inviting grandmothers from other cultures to cook their classics in his kitchen, and it grew even busier.
“There are so many different people from so many different cultures,” he said. “It just made sense to include everyone’s grandmother in the picture.”
Today, Enoteca Maria has two kitchens – one for the in-house chefs, who prepare Italian cuisine – and another for the visiting nunna. Sometimes there are two visiting nuns on duty. The restaurant is open Friday through Sunday and, apart from some Italian staples, the menu is different each day – depending on a nonna’s specialties. People are advised to book at least two weeks in advance as there is often a long waiting list.
Given the variety of cuisines on offer and the range of ingredients required, running the restaurant can be challenging, explains Scaravella. 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 set the menu. Typically, visiting nuns are hired to cook at the restaurant about once a month, Scaravella said, though some come more often and others only once or twice a year.
“My favorite part of the job is getting to work with the grandmothers,” Vento said, adding that the daily highlight is when patrons clap for the visiting nonnas at the end of the night. ‘You have to see the faces of the nonnas. They are so proud and so excited to have been able to share a part of their culture through food.”
Many of the nonnas, Vento said, have become good 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 nunna, there’s one criteria: “They have to love to cook, and that’s it,” Vento said.
While there is no required test, many prospective chefs 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 although she had no experience working in a restaurant, she was immediately hooked. She has been a regular at the restaurant ever since and recently wrote a cookbook called ‘Japanese Superfoods’.
When she started working at Enoteca Maria, “I started feeling so passionate 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 his heart — and stomach — felt full again. What started as an attempt to reconnect with his roots has empowered others to do the same.
“It’s hundreds of years of culture coming out of those fingertips,” he said. “It’s beautiful stuff.”