When it comes to comfort food, near the top of your list is probably one of your grandmother’s signature dishes. It could be her “secret” lasagne recipe, meatloaf, apple pie, or chicken soup, it really doesn’t matter. The magic comes from a mix of nostalgia, a dish rooted in your family’s culture, and probably a lot of ingredients that aren’t all that good for you.
That magic is hard to replicate as a restaurant theme — more often than not, it’ll come off as gimmicky and inauthentic. But every so often, “food just like grandma used to make” works. And in one particular case, the magic comes from taking the “grandma” angle literally.
Enoteca Maria is an Italian restaurant (mostly, you’ll see) in Staten Island, the oft-forgotten New York City borough. It was founded in 2009, give or take a year, by a guy named Jody Scaravella. His angle, originally, was to source talent straight from Italy. And by talent, he meant grandmothers. As Gothamist reported, “Scaravella initially hired a small group of Italian nonnas by placing an ad calling for ‘Italian housewives to cook regional dishes’ in one of Italy’s newspapers” and hired about a half-dozen of them. Each grandma came from a different region of the country; Scaravella placed them on a rotating schedule, each bringing their own different take on eggplant parm and the like when it was their day to run the kitchen. Authentic food from real grandmas — just not your own grandmother.
The concept was a hit. Enoteca Maria received a reputation not only for a fun spin on family dining but also for its typically good, often-changing menu — one which blended consistency and variety in a new way. And in 2015, Scaravella took it to the next level.
That year, the restauranteur expanded — not in the number of restaurants, but in the number and backgrounds of the grandmas he has in the kitchen. Scaravella now brings in grandmothers from around the world to add their own signature dishes to the menu, with a different grandmother on-site every night. Per Food and Wine, the chef/grandmother roster is incredibly diverse: “[the] unique kitchen staff includes dozens of women from far-flung nations including the Dominican Republic, Syria, Nigeria, Poland, Argentina, and more.” It’s still predominantly an Italian restaurant, but as the New York Times reported, “each of the [other] cooks comes in one day a month to help with the daily specials, which makes for a unique energy in the kitchen.”
The only downside? Sometimes, the kitchen is too small for more than one grandma. Scaravella told Food and Wine that, at times, “when you put all of these grandmothers that are all at the top in a room together, they all feel like they’re in charge and they’re wondering what that other person is doing there.” But that rarely affects the unique dining experience.
From the Archives: No Copying Grandma: Why you may not be able to get copies made of your old family photos. (This was a bigger issue a few years back, but the basic problem is still the same.)