Missing home cooking? Borrow a grandma
July 7th, 2011
09:15 AM ET
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Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and this week, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. The week will culminate with a Secret Supper in New York City, and Eatocracy invites you to participate online starting Monday July 11th at 6:30 p.m. E.T.

“If you have a choice between a three-star Michelin chef and Grandma’s, where you going?” Joe Scaravella asked.

“Well, I’m going to Grandma’s. I’m going to the source."

Scaravella is the owner of Enoteca Maria – a restaurant where, by design, there is no resident three-star Michelin chef. Instead, the kitchen is fueled exactly as Joe said: by an arsenal of local, authentic Italian grandmothers who cook up the specialties of their respective native regions.

The restaurant is located on Staten Island – a borough of New York City that, coincidentally enough, is home to the largest Italian-American population in any congressional district.

Born to Italian immigrants, Scaravella named the restaurant after his own mother, Maria, but accredits his “nonna” or Italian grandmother as the ultimate executive chef in the family.

At Enoteca Maria, the food tastes like nonna used to cook because it is nonna cooking - she just may not be your nonna.

“When you grow up eating what it’s supposed to taste like; everything else is a disappointment,” said Scaravella.

Early on a recent Friday night, resident grandmothers Teresa Scalici of Sicilia, Rosaria Vigorito of Abruzzo, Rosa Turano of Veneto, Carmelina Pica of Campania, and Elvira Pantaelo of Sicilia gathered around to chat at a corner table in the 35-seat restaurant.

Teresa was in charge of the menu that night, pushing out Pasta con Sarde (pasta with sardines) and Brasato di Coniglio (braised rabbit). There was no spaghetti and meatballs or eggplant Parmesan; and there certainly was no Frank Sinatra crooning from the speakers. One thing was clear: this wasn't an Italian-American joint.

"Italian-American cooking is a 'bastardized' version," Elvira said, with Rosa acting as translator.

As the grandmothers will passionately tell you, Enoteca Maria is for real Italian food; cocina povera, or “peasant cooking,” where whole fish, game and offal are customary because that was what was available when they were growing up. You certainly weren't going to spare a kidney or a drop of blood when there were 14 kids to feed. It was farm-to-table out of necessity, before farm-to-table became a buzz word.

Chilled veal with tuna sauce? Cappuzelle – or baked sheep’s head? This ain’t your mama’s cooking – it’s your nonna’s cooking.

Joe and the nonnas aren’t just serving authentic Italian fare on a plate; they’re essentially serving up a way to honor their own nonnas who came before them.

The dining experience is about nourishment – physically and emotionally.

“I lost everybody, so these ladies really fill that void. And they fill that with a lot of people who come here that have lost their grandparents,” said Scaravella.

And according to the resident grandmothers, Joe isn’t the only one who gets emotional. Many customers come for what Pixar Studios famously coined as the “Anton Ego” moment. One bite suddenly transports them to another time, another place, where they’re knee-high eating mother’s ratatouille after falling off their bike, or in this case, helping their own nonna strain tomatoes for the Sunday sauce.

"At the end, customers want to hug and kiss us. They ask if they can take us home," said Nonna Carmelina.

The strong reaction is based partially in the sad reality that such nonnas are a dying breed. Statistics show fewer families actually sit down to eat together, let alone to a home-cooked meal.

All of these ladies, with the exception of Carmelina, learned to cook from their own nonna. It was Carmelina’s father who helped her learn her way around the kitchen - as her mother had her hands full with 13 other kids.

These were the days before recipe search engines and stand-and-stir television shows. Then, you learned how to craft food mostly by "dump cooking." This means no recipes; you merely rely on intuition of how the dish is supposed to look, taste and feel.

“Food is how we express love. Growing up, we all had to eat the same meal. It's our way of nurturing," explained Nonna Rosaria.

“Before and after, you can do whatever you want - but we had to sit at the table together. That’s the time that you really bond,” added Nonna Rosa.

All the nonnas agree there’s not a time they cook, that they still don't feel their own grandmother watching, or hear her saying “put a little more salt,” joked Rosaria.

It’s a way to keep the home fires burning. First and foremost, they’re nonnas - but even more importantly, they are keepers of delicious tradition.

“It’s an archive of these recipes which are quickly fading. As these ladies pass, they take them with them,” said Scaravella.

And as someone who lost both his matriarchal cooks, he doesn't want the same fate to befall to anyone else.

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Filed under: Bite • Cuisines • Cultural Identity • Culture • Favorites • Italian • Secret Suppers • Think


soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Bella

    Joe, please follow these dear ladies around the kitchen and write down the recipes as much as possible. We can't let all that knowledge and know-how go to heaven!

    November 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  2. Aisha

    Home made food is always good for health and easy to cook. You can try it yourself by looking into http://discoveryourtaste.blogspot.com/

    July 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  3. guy

    Grandma's always know what's best for ya...mine always said "eat beef liver once a week." Guess what? It's been found to be the best thing for you...Grandma's just know and the meals they create taste so much better because Grandma's alway add a pinch of love in everything they make:)...thanx Grandma:)

    July 8, 2011 at 6:54 am |
  4. Mark Gottlieb

    It's true for many of us. My Grandmother was a Romanian Jew (actually, she was the daughter of a Romanian Jew, as she also was born in Pittsburgh, so she cooked in the Ashkenazik Jewish style with some Romanian dishes thrown in. My mother had no time to learn to cook (she studied most of the time) and actually didn't care to cook (I think because she knew she couldn't best my Grandmother), as well as she was married and raised our family from the 1950's, early 1960's school of eating frozen or canned food. Since she and I were brought up around Pittsburgh, PA, there was no fresh fish available (well, we did have some trout), so fish sticks were what fish was all about. Luckily, I learned to cook from my dear Grandmother–she used to use me as a "taste tester" to see if the food needed more salt or something else. Even though I only saw her a month or two out of the year (my grandparents had moved to Florida), I watched transfixed as she made brisket, kasha varnishkas, double chicken soup stock, kreplach (both meat for soup, and cheese), baked eggplant (eggplant "caviar"), as well as "mamaliga" (the Romanian name for polenta).

    I, too, would go to a Grandma's restaurant most of the time if I wanted the "real thing". And even though, I think, there's some nostalgia mixed in with the actual ingredients, there's nothing better than what Grandma made.

    July 7, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  5. Momto3

    I miss my grandmother and her cooking. Everything tastes better at grandmas. My mom could feed us and then we would go to grandmas and instantly be hungry. Now my kids do the same thing. My nuclear family has a family meal at least 6-10 times a week, and once every couple of weeks at grandmas. I hope to continue the family tradition.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  6. Suzanne

    Grandmas/Nonna's cook with love...however, I prefer baked chicken/roast over a baked Sheep head..*goes running out the room

    July 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Suzanne

      p.s ~ grandma's smell of sugar & garlic and everything nice...wish I could hug my grandma & sit at her table again

      July 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  7. Aili

    I have been to Enoteca Maria, and not only is the food absolutely delicious, the atmosphere of the restaurant is warm and inviting. Definitely a wonderful experience!

    July 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  8. bucky

    what does this article (see the above photo) have to do with Abbey Road?

    July 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  9. Verygrateful

    I am very lucky my family and I took the time to get my grandmothers recipes written down by her. We made copies for everyone in the family. We are so lucky we did this when we did because she is slowly forgeting the recipes she has always made.

    July 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  10. TJK

    My nonna, who we call granny, opens a can of Chef Boyardee.

    July 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Bella

      Oh dear... Go adopt a Nonna who can cook like these ladies!

      November 10, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  11. Ani

    What a wonderful thing! I'd give my eyeteeth to enjoy my grandma's cooking once again. Spending time with her in the kitchen are some of my best childhood memories.

    July 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  12. ceecee

    Who is the guy in the background?!!! If you have the opportunity to spend time with your grandma....do it! Learn all you can from them. They have so much to offer and teach us. Listen and apply what they teach you. What they have to offer is not in a book or in a classroom.

    July 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  13. Meghan

    1) I do miss my grandmother and her cooking every single day

    2) I would like to raise a small defense for all of the X-American food (Italian-American, Tex-Mex, Chinese-American, ...). Many "bastardizations" are totally delicious. I refuse to debate authenticity with anyone – there's no such thing. I totally accept that you will never find ____ at a real X restaurant, but that does not automatically make it bad.

    July 7, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Emilee

    I love this concept! I miss my grandmother's cooking. They were both Polish, I still crave their signature dishes.

    July 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  15. Don

    Sad when you have to go out to eat some home cooking. Yes, I know you are all tooooo busy to cook for yourself. Your life is just to busy to live it. Sad!
    Wake up before life passes you by. Take the time live. It's the simple things that make life worth living.

    July 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  16. Jeannie

    This article touched me. My nonna is still alive but sadly is getting to old to do any cooking. A phrase comes to mind when I read this article, "Approch love and cooking with reckless abandon". My nonna has tought me some things but being so busy all the time i never learned all her receipes. This article makes me want to take time off and spend with her!!! Thanks to the author I really loved this!!!

    July 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  17. Valentine

    beautiful. New Orleans used to be this way, too. My daughter and I just make food that we have available.

    July 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  18. Mildred

    I never had my own grandmothers' cooking (both had passed on even before my older brother was born).

    But when I get the chance, I'll borrow someone else's mom or grandmother!

    July 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • good cookin

      I would be happy to share my grandmothers southern style cooking with you, and no worries she love having guests over for dinner!

      July 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Carrie T.

      Come to Alabama! Everyone is welcome at my Grandmother's house.

      July 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  19. Ellen Cavanaugh

    My fiancé and I frequent Enoteca at least twice a month and to be quite honest, we never want to leave. You never know what will be on the daily menu until that day because the nonna's shop locally and purchase whatever is freshest and then work out the menu from there. On an island filled with mediocre Italian American fare, this place is an absolute gem.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  20. Mike

    I've been there many times, great food, great wine, wonderful Nonnas. I went there with my sister and 2.5 month old nephew, and Nonna Carmelina came out of the kitchen to see the baby. She was great, and Joe takes the time to talk to everyone about the food, the wine, whatever... It's expensive, but worth it on occassion...
    @flower12 I cant begin to tell you all the things wrong with your statement. Your mother ever cook anything for you? Yes, so I guess you ate butt food. Moron.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Nikki

      FLOWER12 is an idiot. Proberly thinks she will stay young forever.

      July 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  21. Steve Bradley

    I don't get the Abbey Road parody.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Ellen Cavanaugh

      Joe is a fan of classic rock and usually has his IPod going all night long.

      July 7, 2011 at 11:46 am |
      • Dover

        .....and need to ruin the photo by narcissistically placing himself in it.

        July 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • ceecee

      It's art doe doe....how who's the guy in the background?!!!!

      July 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  22. flower12

    EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. I would NEVER eat old lady food. Old ladies pick their butts and smell like pee. Nasty! And to the author of this article LEARN TO COOK FOR YOURSELF YOU LAZY SLOB. Don't expect a woman to do everything for you.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • mikesue

      So old lady's pick there butt,,,,, Is that something like some of you young people picking your noses!!! Get real, brat!!!

      July 7, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • jojo

      EEEEEEEEEEEEW! You have issues!

      July 7, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • shawn l

      I believe the 12 stands for the persons age.

      July 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
      • LW

        You got it! It's difficult to find many mature comments or worthwhile discussions among the comments of CNN 'readers.' I think this is the place where 6th graders go to show off how funny they think they are.

        July 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
      • DAT67

        I vote for IQ.

        July 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • ceecee

      I agree with jojo......YOU do have issues! Go talk to a professional. Learn how to become a happy person.

      July 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • George

      Idiot

      July 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Len

      IQ test?

      July 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  23. shawn l

    Or french. My great grandmother taught my mother everything, and it was from the farm to the plate cooking. That's how I was raised and continue to eat. People that grew up on packaged or store bought food do not know how real food is meant to taste. A great example are strawberries. They are supposed to be blood red through, not white inside. Tomatoes are much sweeter, and stronger tasting, again blood red all the way through, not pink.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  24. Conrad Shull

    If the grandma is Italian, Greek, Mexican or Southern, yes. Otherwise, probably not.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • margaret

      or Irish, Turkish, German, etc. Grandmothers expressing love has no cultural boundaries.

      July 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
      • E

        Or African, (South, East, West and North), Asian or Hispanic... so long as the food is great and reminds you of your childhood!

        July 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
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