Two Restaurants, One Address, 40 Well Seasoned Chefs
If you were out for a noonday stroll in downtown Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs (this one a landing point for the famed, free Staten Island Ferry), you’d no doubt pass Enoteca Maria on Hyatt Street.
A small, inviting Italian eatery and wine bar, this intimate enoteca offers a lunchtime menu plump with iconic southern Italian dishes and imported wines and beers. But come late afternoon and Enoteca Maria transforms into a scene so distinct from the lunchtime landscape that it requires a second name: Nonnas of the World. Nonnas? Yep, starting around three in the afternoon it’s as if your own grandmother – had she come from Japan, Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt or any of another of a dozen or so other countries – had hijacked the restaurant just for the pleasure of cooking for a roomful of strangers.
Italian offerings are a constant at Enoteca Maria, but in the evening there is a parallel menu, global in nature and singular to the native cuisine of that night’s featured nonna.
No age limit or nation bias here, only granny-aged cooks need apply. While they may be untrained chefs, these grannies are hardly unsung: they’ve been celebrated in print from The New York Times to newspapers in Italy, the Ukraine, Germany and more. Too, they’ve been featured in a documentary, on NBC-TV, even in Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
Food = Love + Culture
“Every time one of these nonnas is in the kitchen,” says Enoteca Maria owner and founder Joe Scaravella, “you have a thousand years of culture coming out of their fingertips.”
Joe opened the restaurant in 2008 using a rotating group of Italian nonna chefs. So it wasn’t much of a reach for him to start thinking more globally. And in a few years he sought out a wider array of grandmothers who were eager to supply the kind of kitchen love and culture that his own Nonna Domenica had shown to him.
“Especially in this time when there’s so much divisiveness it’s important to bring people from different cultures together,” Joe says, “I think food and music and art do that very comfortably, I’m proud to be part of that.
Choosing My Nonna
Since I know nothing of Colombia’s cuisine or culture, I chose the diminutive Rosa Maria Ortega from Medellin as my chef for the night. My hope was that I’d learn–and taste–something new and different. Nonna Ortega didn’t disappoint. Shy, and speaking very limited English, Nonna Ortega was clearly in charge of the kitchen, bustling from stove to table, stopping only for a selfie or two with appreciative customers. Like the other nonnas, Rosa Maria Ortega seemed to enjoy the attention and the gratitude.
Since my Spanish is as limited as is Nonna Ortega’s English, I threw myself on the expertise of the pleasant, experienced wait staff to steer me through the menu and to choose an appropriate wine. Here’s what was on the menu:
¿Qué hay en el menú?
Arepas con Carne; Patacones con Guacamole; Sancocho de Pollo; Arroz con Pollo, and for dessert…
The Patacones con Guacamole turned out to be a dinner-plate sized patty of warm, toasty, fried green plantains smothered in an herbed guacamole sauce. In other words Colombian comfort food on a cold winter’s night. And since the temperature outside was well below freezing, I warmed at the sight of my next dish Sancocho de Pollo, a soupy chicken stew made with root vegetables and served with a side of cob corn, avocado and rice. And for dessert? Pudin de Coco, a silky, creamy, custardy concoction, similar to flan, but with a subtle hint of coconut.
Nonna Ortega, one of seven siblings, first came to this country in 1985 using her cooking skills to sell Colombian tamales. After several years however, she gave birth to a daughter Michelle and decided to return to Colombia. But worried that Michelle would not excel back home she returned to the US to stay in 1999. She worked two and three jobs here to try to get ahead. And to give her daughter a better life.
In fact, it’s daughter Michelle Restrepo, who shares her Mom’s story. It was Michelle’s father-in-law who introduced Michelle to Joe Scaravella several years ago. And she quickly thought of her Mom, who has always enjoyed cooking for crowds, as one of the chefs. Nonna Ortega lives in Old Bridge, New Jersey in a Colombian community. Her Mom is delighted to be recognized for her skills. “In fact,” says Michelle, “every time she’s asked for one of her recipes, or complimented on her cooking, or asked for a photo, she calls me just thrilled with it all.” And how about you Michelle, are you a good cook? “No, I don’t need to be. I have my Mom.”
- The restaurant — cash only– is open Wednesday through Sunday; reservations are recommended. But in order to choose your favorite nonna food or to try something new, log on to the nonna calendar for a schedule of upcoming cuisines here.
- The Staten Island Island ferry trip from Manhattan’s Whitehall Station to St. George, Staten Island takes about 25 minutes. If you can, make your dinner reservation around dusk so that in addition to a memorable supper you can enjoy a stunning sunset view of the Statue of Liberty.
Visit Enoteca Maria
27 Hyatt Street, Staten Island, New York 10301
Please note: Cash only; no credit cards accepted.