Hidden off Hyatt Street on Staten Island are grandmothers from dozens of cultures cooking the homemade meal of your dreams.
The “nonnas” of Enoteca Maria are the culinary wizards behind of homestyle recipes from countries including Dominican Republic, Italy, France, Venezuela and Czech Republic. But it wasn’t always that way.
Nine years ago, Jody Scaravella opened Enoteca Maria with Italian grandmothers in the kitchen, hoping to serve memories of his own nonna’s traditional dishes.
Even though customers were crazy about the classic Italian food, Scarvella realized “it’s not all about” Italian grandmas.
“Can you imagine if we feature everybody’s grandmothers?” Scarvella said.
In 2014, the restaurant started offering an international menu that changes daily, but always offers Italian options.
In the basement Nonna Adelina Orazzo prepares her signature Italian dinner and dessert dishes including cheesecake. She began cooking tomato sauce for her brother and sisters at 8 years old while her parents were at work.
However, finding culinary jobs in Naples, Italy, would not come easy as an adult. In 1991, Orazzo moved to the United States with her husband and five children in search of a better life. She stumbled across a newspaper ad from a restaurant looking for a Italian chef who was a grandmother. Soon after she became the executive nonna at Enoteca Maria.
“Everytime I change [the menu] the people like it the same,” said Orazzo, one of the 10 Italian nonnas cooking at Enoteca.
Alongside Orazzo, there are 21 other nonnas who prepare the array of tasty dishes. Nonna Habiba Hachemi’s daughter, Khalida Djeriou, discovered Enoteca Maria in 2015 through an ad posted by Scaravella on Craigslist looking for a North African nonna.
“We told him about my mom's menu, I translated for her, we told all the ingredients and everything and that’s how I started here,” Djeriou said. Soon after, Hachemi became Enoteca Maria’s first Algerian cook.
Much like Orazzo, Hachemi’s mother taught her traditional recipes and she began cooking for her big family at 14. Hachemi now begins her long day at 10 a.m. preparing her menu. She plans the unique menu with inspiration from Algerian dishes, including her famous couscous.
“One thing I can say about Habiba, she's one of the favorite nonnas and her couscous has now become legendary. People want to come for her couscous,” raves Suzi Ziegler, a waitress.
The popular dish is made with raisins, chicken, potato, carrots and other vegetables. Some of her other specialties are desserts, pastries and cakes including her favorite lemon meringue pie.
Hachemi and the other nonnas pride themselves in cooking with fresh ingredients. The preparation takes about five hours and diners pour in at 3 p.m. for lunch.
Scarvella also recently launched a nonnas-in-training cooking class for those who want to learn how to cook like grandma. It’s free, but there’s a catch.
“You cannot choose the culture that you cook with,” Scarvella said. “That’s how culture is passed down.”
The nonnas of Enoteca Maria are like a big family and consider one another friends despite the language barrier. They communicate through broken English and the help of their multi-lingual waitstaff.
However, their talent for cooking speaks for itself. The restaurant bustles with tourists and food lovers.
“Tony Bennett was going to be performing at the theater and we were booked months in advance,” said Ziegler, referring to the St. George Theatre across the street. “Sophia Loren came.”
In the coming years, Scaravella hopes to recruit more nonnas to expand the menu. Weekend reservations are made months in advance and they are often booked on Saturday and Sunday. Before you visit Enoteca Maria, call to make a reservation.