As our search for venues for Oh My Sweet Land began to venture far and wide (in the five boroughs that is) our search brought us to Staten Island. Where we found Enoteca Maria, a restaurant dedicated to displaying different food from various “Nonnas” from around the world. After experiencing an afternoon of incredible Italian food I spoke with Jody Scaravella, the owner of Enoteca Maria to better understand the importance of food’s cultural connections; and how food acts as a “glue” to bring us all together.
How did you start up this restaurant?
It began with a need to recreate that Italian kitchen that I lost with my grandmother and parents. I was really just trying to recreate that part of my life. And in many ways that did happen.
What exactly is a “Nonna”?
Nonna is a metaphor. Some of these women are not actually grandmothers but they are in their late 40’s, so 50’s, 60’s but what is important is that all of these women have a lot of their heritage that they are willing and want to share, and the customers love it.
How did you initially pitch this restaurant? How has it evolved?
In the beginning I wanted to feature nonnas. I knew that there were a lot of women that were really good cooks, specifically they were Italian women that immigrated to this country. So I put an ad in the Italian newspaper, and it basically said we were looking for housewives, Italian housewives to cook their regional cuisine. All these ladies started showing up and of course many of them were older women, they were grandmothers. In that moment, we realized that those were the most important people in the room. And after about three years of operation with our Italian nonnas, we realized it’s not all about Italians, it is about every culture. So we developed a virtual book, a prototype, attached to our website that is called “Nonnas of the World”. And we began to actualize Nonnas of the world by grandmothers of different cultures, and integrate Nonnas of different cultures into our kitchen.
In terms of passing down recipes, what do you believe that provides for an individual connecting/reconnecting with their culture?
I think that, and I’ve said this before that food, music, art, these are the things that take you across cultural borders comfortably. It is a mechanism that really helps people to see each other and understand each other and pulls back that veiled mystery, the reference to the “other”. When they are right there, and sharing their culture with you, it is then that we realize that we are all just one people.Food I think is integral. It really is the glue that holds everything together. People sit down, families sit down around the table and you’re eating something and sharing this cultural connection. So really it is the connective tissue that holds the entire thing together. It is a huge part of our culture and we actually try to mimic that passing down of knowledge in the cooking classes we offer.
Could you talk a little about the cooking classes you offer?
The class is called Nonnas in training. It is only for women, and it is a one-on-one class with one of our Nonnas. With the one-on-one process it’s more personal, you really have to engage with that person. I think this model provides a completely different energy. And also I love that it really is a reenactment of that passing down of knowledge from grandmother to granddaughter or mother to daughter. That connection is really what brings our cultures forward. The best moments are watching these students come in and work with the Nonna of the day and watch the process. I really want to see the cross- cultural exchange, that’s why you’re not supposed to pick/know the culture of the Nonna. It’s important now more than ever.
Do you charge for these classes?
No these classes are free, I think to charge for these classes would cheapen the experience and I’m really grateful that I am able to do this. The classes happen in Enoteca, you come in at 12 and the class runs from 12-3. Basically the student helps the Nonna get ready for the day. You really help in the participation of that nonna’s cultural cuisine. It’s more than just culinary wisdom that is shared in that kitchen.
If you had a highlight reel, what would be some of the best moments?
For me the best moments are seeing the different cultures in the kitchen together. We have a program that is called “Advocates of the Nonna”. When a new grandmother comes in we have one of our seasoned grandmothers work with her to keep her stress level down; because of course cooking in a restaurant in front of all those people…you kind of need someone there to hold your hand and walk you through it. We just recently had a Nonna come join our team, she’s from Hyderabad, India, and we had our Nonna from Siberia as the advocate that day. Seeing the two of them in the kitchen and talking about their different recipes and ingredients, for me that’s magic.
Enoteca Maria is located at 27 Hyatt Street, Staten Island NY 10301. If interested in the cooking classes Jody discussed, follow the link embedded in the title “Nonnas in Training”.
 Nonna is the Italian word for grandmother