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.
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.