You can dine at the swankiest bistros on earth: sink your teeth into a $250 steak au poivre, make a $500 bottle of champagne disappear, pay $80 for a piece of cake you can only see with a microscope.
But what dish could ever top memories of lazy Sunday afternoons when grandma came over and whipped up her signature lasagne? Heck, my grandma didn't even like to cook, but when she poured me a bowl of Corn Flakes, I knew it was the best bowl of Corn Flakes.
If you're in New York and longing for that home-cooked je ne sais quoi, we have good news! Staten Island's Enoteca Maria restaurant serves up a different grandmother's food every day.
Enoteca has two kitchens because it has two menus. Half the menu is fixed Italian fare, permanently available. It is served up by Nonna Adelina Orazzo, the grandmother-in-residence. The other kitchen, and the other half of the menu, depends on the reigning matriarch of the day.
Grandmothers from all over the world are represented: from Sri Lanka, Armenia, Russia, Japan, Trinidad, Bangladesh, Greece, Syria, the Czech Republic, Venezuela. Depending on what day you walk through the door, you may be treated to a little family-style cooking from one of several dozen different countries as the grandma chefs rotate through their tours of kitchen duty. (Or if you're more in the mood for old favourites, you can choose the fresh but familiar Italian cuisine of Nonna Adelina.)
Each grandmother is given the affectionate Italian nickname 'nonna' when she takes over the second kitchen for the evening.
"It's more personal," diner Mary McLaughlin tells The New York Times of the ever-changing chefs. "And it leads to a variety of items on the menu."
To give you a sense of the menu, here's what Nonna Rosa was cooking up for guests on August 5th:
(If you have restrictive dining requirements, no worries: Enoteca also offers extensive vegan options.)
Restaurant founder Joe Scaravella grew up in Brooklyn under the tutelage of his maternal grandmother, Nonna Domenica, who was effectively the lady of the house. "She is the one who passed down to us her culture," he writes, "with, at its very heart, her culinary traditions.
"...Growing up I realized that my grandmother had been the repository of our family culture and identity. And I found out that, like her, millions of grandmothers all over the world pass down their heritage to their grandchildren."
Scaravella opened Enoteca Maria nine years ago, inspired by the influence his nonna had on his life. His original idea was to have nonnas from different regions of Italy cook at his restaurant on a rotating basis in order to showcase that country's diverse culinary traditions.
In 2011, Scaravella hit upon the idea of internationalizing his restaurant. Why not share passed-down recipes and secret ingredients from nonnas everywhere? He began compiling grandmothers' recipes in a virtual cookbook called Nonnas of the World. If you click that link, you can visit read and it online. Better yet -- you can submit some of your own grandmother's best dishes so fellow foodies can enjoy them anywhere on earth!
Trying out other people's family recipes is one thing. But what about learning to cook them in person with the nonnas of Enoteca Maria? That can be arranged too.
The restaurant has recently launched the Nonnas In Training program. Every day, the guest chef offers a free cooking lesson between 12 and 3 pm. You can click here to let the Enoteca know your availability and apply for a place in the workshop. The only downside is you don't get to choose which nonna you'll get to study with, since the schedule is so fluid and spaces are so limited.
For this reason, Enoteca also cannot guarantee you'll get a vegetarian or nut-free cooking lesson if you're meat-averse or allergic. They therefore regretfully insist that vegetarians and persons with severe allergies not apply for the classes.
With its lazy susan of diverse, authentic, home-cooked meals, Enoteca Maria and its merry band of nonnas are a smash hit. They've attracted quite a bit of media attention, with profiles in The Times, a segment on Good Morning America, and even an entry in Ripley's Believe It Or Not!
Still, no number of columns, TV spots, or highfalutin Travel Awaits articles can dim the simple, rustic charm of a dish whose secret ingredient is generations of hands-on experience. And, of course, love.
Enoteca Maria Information
4.5/5 (Certificate of Excellence)
59% rated 'excellent', 25% 'very good'
27 Hyatt Street,
Staten Island, New York
(718) 447-2777 (reservations are for a two-hour meal)
Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday
Open at noon, last seating at 8:30pm