It’s become so popular, you can’t just walk in for a meal. Obtaining a table requires a reservation several weeks in advance.
There are about a dozen women who regularly cook at Enoteca Maria, a casual 30-seat Italian restaurant. Its menu is prepared and executed by a rotating group of international women, most of whom are matriarchs.
The nonnas – the Italian word for grandmothers – include 88-year-old Maria Gialanella. She has accumulated such a following that some customers only come on nights when they know she is in the kitchen. She even has her own Instagram page.
Seeing strangers taste her culinary creations, she says, gives her immense pleasure and pride.
“Everyone likes it, so I’m very happy,” said Gialanella, an Italian immigrant known for making handmade ravioli, rich stews, soups and other family recipes she learned growing up near from Napoli.
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 cook there.
“It’s good with the other nonnas,” said Gialanella, who has six grandchildren. “I love all foods.”
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Restaurateur Joe Scaravella is a huge fan.
“She’s not even 5 feet tall, but she’s a powerhouse,” said Scaravella, who opened the restaurant in 2007. “She walks around and takes selfies. She hangs out at night hugging people.
Initially, you had to be an Italian grandmother like Gialanella to join the kitchen team, but about nine years ago, Scaravella has decided to expand the cooking criteria.
“They just have to be women who are capable of carrying their culture forward,” he explained, adding that the cooks – who are all called “nonna” by customers, regardless of background – are between 50 and 90 years old. and possess an in-depth knowledge of their culture’s unique cuisine. While most are grandmothers, some are not.
Nonnas come from all over the world: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Puerto Rico, Italy, Germany, Greece, Poland, Armenia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Egypt and Trinidad and Tobago. The list continues.
Yumi Komatsudaira prepares traditional Japanese cuisine at Enoteca Maria. Although she has no grandchildren, she too, of course, is called nonna. The designation delighted her.
“Everyone is so friendly there, it’s like a family feeling,” said Komatsudaira, who is in her 50s and has a 17-year-old son.
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She specializes in traditional Japanese specialties such as dumplings, dengaku (made with vegetables and miso) and endless noodle preparations, ranging from savory to sweet.
At first the restaurant only served Italian dishes – to reflect Scaravella’s roots. He opened the restaurant after losing several members of his family, including his grandmother and 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 personal grief after losing a lot of my family members and trying to recreate them,” said Scaravella, 67, whose long gray beard and small oval glasses instantly make him recognizable around the Quartier Saint-Georges. “That was what it was all about.”
At the time, Scaravella had spent more than 17 years working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and had no experience running a restaurant — let alone a restaurant.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “No business plan or anything.”
On a whim, he used the money his mother, Maria, had left behind to buy a vacant storefront and decided to name his new restaurant after him. There is a clear connection, he says, between food and family.
Scaravella wanted his restaurant to serve the traditional Italian classics he desperately lacked. The women of his family dominated the kitchen.
“There were a lot of women at home who had all this information,” Scaravella said. His mother and grandmother, for example, knew “the secret to a good meatball” and “how to reuse stale bread”.
“All my life I never wanted to go to an Italian restaurant, because it never worked,” he continued. “These ladies, they are the source. It is the ships that transmit this information.
Since her own matriarchs were gone, Scaravella embarked on a quest to find nonnas who could cook authentic, hearty meals. He knew they wouldn’t take his family’s place, but he thought maybe their food could help fill the void.
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Before opening the restaurant, Scaravella advertised in the local Italian-American newspaper, looking for nonnas who could cook regional dishes from different parts of Italy. He was stunned by the response.
“I invited these ladies to my house. They showed up with plates of food,” Scaravella said. “That was really the cradle of the idea.”
From there he opened the doors of the Enoteca Maria, staffing the kitchen with real nonnas who cooked everything from lasagna to chicken cacciatore. The concept, Scaravella said, was meant to mimic the experience of going to your nonna’s house for a meal.
“There is a certain security when you go to your grandmother’s house, in general,” he explained. “It’s a strong memory and it’s very comforting, and I really needed to be comforted.”
The restaurant quickly took off. A few years later, Scaravella started inviting grandmothers from other cultures to cook their classics in her kitchen, and it got even busier.
“There are so many different people from so many different cultures,” he said. “It made sense to star everyone’s grandma.”
Today, Enoteca Maria has two kitchens – one for its in-house chefs, who prepare Italian cuisine – and another, for the visiting nonna. Sometimes there are two visiting nonnas on duty. The restaurant is open from Friday to Sunday and, apart from a few Italian dishes, the menu is different every day, depending on the specialties of a nonna. People are advised to book at least two weeks in advance, as the waiting list is often long.
Given the variety of cuisines on offer and the range of ingredients needed, the restaurant can be difficult to manage, Scaravella said. Still, he said, “I love what I do.”
Scaravella and the restaurant manager, Paola Vento, organize the weekly program and work with the nonnas to determine the menu. Typically, visiting nonnas 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 working with the grandmothers,” Vento said, adding that the highlight of the day is when the patrons cheer for the visiting nonnas at the end of the evening. “You have to see the faces of the nonnas. They are so proud and so excited to have been able to share part of their culture through food.
Many of the nonnas, Vento said, have become close friends. Although they speak different languages and come from different places, they have found ways to bond, mostly through food.
“There’s a lot of love in the room,” she said.
To become a visiting nonna, there is one criterion: “They have to love cooking, and that’s it,” Vento said.
Although there is no compulsory test, many potential cooks attend a free individual course offered at the restaurant called “nonnas in training”.
Komatsudaira signed up for a session six years ago, and despite having no experience working in a restaurant, she was immediately hooked. She’s been a regular restaurant nonna ever since, and recently wrote a cookbook called “Japanese Superfoods.”
When she started working at Enoteca Maria, “I started feeling so much passion for sharing my Japanese heritage,” she said, adding that her grandmother was “one of the influences the strongest” on his kitchen.
As Scaravella misses his own nonna, he said his heart — and his stomach — felt full again. What began as an effort to reconnect with her roots has allowed others to do the same.
“It’s hundreds of years of culture coming out of your fingertips,” he said. “It’s beautiful material.”