To most of us, Grandma’s cooking is inevitably imbued with nostalgia—warm memories of delicious food prepared with care. Grandma is the keeper of family recipes, a stalwart of tradition, the chef’s muse.
But what if Grandma herself was the chef, doling out her amazing dishes to curious diners?
Adelina Orazzo is one of several chef “nonnas” (grandmas in Italian) at Enoteca Maria in Staten Island, a restaurant that specializes in home-style food from cultures around the world. The kitchen is presided over by women and men—most 50 years old and above—who are experienced in the art of traditional cooking.
Originally from Naples, Italy, Orazzo learned to cook from her own mother and grandmother, who taught her the importance of making everything fresh and from scratch. She is full of cooking tips and wisdom that only years of feeding a family can bestow. When making vegetable lasagna, for example, she explained how each type of vegetable must be cooked separately, to coax out maximum flavor.
Orazzo loves to cook, and not just for her family, because “when I look at the faces of people who enjoy my food, their faces change, and I’m satisfied,” she said.
Her dish of stuffed cayenne peppers (Peperoni Ripieni Piccanti), certainly brings elation to diners’ faces ($17). The grilled peppers, filled with spicy sausage, Parmesan, and breadcrumbs, have just the right amount of heat that tingles on your palate without setting your mouth on fire. Slices of pineapple served on the side help you cool down.
Owner Joe Scaravella got the idea to open Enoteca Maria 10 years ago, after his Italian grandmother and mother had both passed away. He remembered how comforting it had been to see them working in the kitchen, and decided to open a restaurant devoted to that idea.
Initially, he hired nonnas from different regions of Italy. Later, he thought he could celebrate culinary traditions from other cultures too. Since last July, he’s been recruiting grandmothers from different cultures. A different culture is represented each night. (If you know a grandma who loves to cook, Scaravella is looking to hire.)
During a visit in mid-August, Kate Otiteh was preparing a menu of traditional Nigerian dishes. She began learning to cook at age 12, when her mother taught her how to properly cook rice. After mastering that, she graduated to making soups and stews, like yam porridge with goat and chicken, a hearty dish of crumbly, soft yams that soak up the fiery spices inside ($18). The heat in this dish comes on gently, sneaking up on you with a kick to the throat.
Another Nigerian classic is “chin chin,” little crackers made of flour and milk that are sweet and crunchy ($10). Otiteh pairs them with fried chicken—a savory and sweet combination. This is the kind of food you could hope to feast on if ever invited to a Nigerian family dinner.
Alongside the daily guest grandma’s menu, the restaurant regularly serves an Italian menu prepared by a rotating lineup of nonnas. Dishes include fresh pastas made by “nonno” (grandpa) Giuseppe Fraia, an elderly gentleman from Calabria, Italy. He toils in the kitchen, constantly rolling pasta dough and pushing it through a hand-cranked pasta maker. “Back then [in Italy], we did everything by hand,” he said.
It’s comforting to know that there are people who still believe in the goodness of homemade, no-shortcuts-taken food, and want to share it with the rest of the world.
27 Hyatt St. (between Stuyvesant Place & St. Marks Place)
From 3 p.m., last seating 8:30 p.m.