Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Money & Career

At This New York Restaurant, Grandmas Run the Show

From  / 
Around the world, cooking traditions tend to pass through families, from grandmother to mother to daughter and so on.

So when Jody Scaravella decided to open an Italian restaurant in New York, he went straight to the source to do the cooking. He found a “nonna.”

Today, nearly 12 years after Enoteca Maria opened in Staten Island, it’s not just one nonna — the Italian word for grandmother — who is in charge. It’s many. And they come from around the world. “Today it’s Japan; tomorrow, it’s the Ukraine,” says Scaravella, during a phone interview. He’s had grandmothers from Palestine, Greece, China, Russia, Colombia, South Korea, Bulgaria, and beyond as cooks, in addition to the on-staff Italian grandmother.

To be clear, they don’t all operate in the same kitchen at the same time. “You know the old saying, ‘Too many cooks spoil the soup?’” laughs Scaravella. “You don’t want to put too many of these matriarchs in a kitchen together.”

The Italian nonna, Adelina Orazzo, runs the downstairs kitchen, making dishes like lasagna, gnocchi, octopus, and roast rabbit, while a small kitchen upstairs hosts a revolving cast of “Nonnas of the World,” as Scaravella refers to them. “It’s an open kitchen. The nonna is right there with you, and she generally comes out to see how you like the food. It’s like being invited to somebody’s home,” he says.

It’s not just the guests who benefit from the cooking. The nonnas — who are usually customers who contact Scaravella via phone or email and then meet with him to talk about participating — get a lot out of it, too. “Every woman is different. Some of these ladies are empty nesters, they’ve lost their husbands, and this gets them out of the house. A lot of times their children will bring them in because they’re home and they’re alone and they could be grieving over a lost spouse,” says Scaravella. “This revitalizes them. All of a sudden, they’re a star. Everybody wants to take a selfie with them.”

Scaravella, himself, has learned a lot from the nonnas. Many of them come from poverty, he says, and so they’ve learned to make the most of what they have, and that comes through in their cooking techniques. He says Orazzo, the Italian nonna, is from Naples and grew up with limited means. Because of that, she’s learned how to take inexpensive cuts of meat and make them into traditional dishes that customers rave about. “Those poverty-driven dishes, for me that’s really the soul of food,” says Scaravella. He’s even written a book with their recipes: Nonna’s House: Cooking and Reminiscing with the Italian Grandmothers of Enoteca Maria.

But the most important lesson Scaravella has learned is about our shared humanity. He says he grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn and had a pretty narrow perspective on life for many years. Now, it’s broadened, as he gets to meet grandmas from around the globe. “You meet these really sweet, beautiful people, and then you have a better understanding of the world,” he says.

Read More In Money & Career

How do you feel about getting old?

Take Our #FOGO QUIZ to Find Out

Start the Quiz →