In a tiny galley kitchen, just steps from the Staten Island Ferry, an Italian grandmother is making ravioli. Just as her grandmother taught her, she flips the sunshine-yellow pasta dough up and over a spoonful of ricotta and parmesan, pinches, folds, and sets a pouch down on a tray.
“There’s really something special about it, having dinner made by an Italian grandma,” says Jody Scaravella, the proprietor of Enoteca Maria (27 Hyatt Street, Staten Island, 718-447-2777), who recruited the grandmas to cook via an ad in an Italian newspaper. “I was still building the restaurant then, so I asked them to come to my place to cook instead — I live in the neighborhood. And they came with dishes, and their husbands and a few grandchildren they were looking after for the day. The whole thing was like a Fellini movie.”
Now ten grandmas (currently four on regular rotation) rule the kitchen. Each has her own night, cooking her own menu from her own region.
Tonight, in addition to her stellar ravioli, Nonna Margherita Amato is making homemade linguine with peas — cooked soft, not al dente (“Oh, no, no no”). There’s sheep’s head (“My grandma used to make me that,” says Scaravella. “People order it a lot. You’d be surprised”), vegetables stewed in tomato sauce, and killer meatballs, plain or stuffed with egg.
“I love this food,” says Scaravella. “The old-world dishes with family secret ingredients. People are forgetting, as our world gets more fast-food and disposable. I want to protect that way of cooking.
“I inherited the money to set up this place after I lost my mom, my grandparents, and my sister. It was just a terrible time. And I think that putting a grandma in the kitchen was an unconscious effort to make myself feel better. To sit down to eat that comforting food.”
In the kitchen, Nonna Margherita roasts off a couple of sausages, tears a bunch of parsley, uses her spoon handle to lift the lid of a boiling pan. At the table, we mop up red sauce with springy homemade focaccia. We relax.
“If it’s on the menu, you should try the pasta in broth with potatoes and onions,” says Scaravella. “It is not good-looking! Believe me! But it’s one of those poverty-driven dishes that just tastes so fantastic! These are memory dishes. The food that you half-remember from your childhood, or that gives you that safe, safe, warm feeling you had then, and, hopefully, they’re dishes that you remember too.”
Keeping the recipes alive, the restaurant’s first book, Nonna’s House, came out last month.
Nonna Margherita takes off her apron. A bottle of sambuca is passed around the tables, “Help yourself!” says Scaravella. We head back to the ferry clutching a generous bag of cookies to eat on the ride. Watching the skyline glitter ever closer, we bite into shortbreads folded around Nutella, confectioner’s sugar dusting our fingers. And life is so good.