America is dotted with countless restaurants large and small. Many of those are well-loved for their distinct character — and for what they can teach diners about cooking, and about life.
One such establishment is Enoteca Maria, an Italian restaurant on New York's Staten Island.
After losing his mom and sister, owner Joe Scaravella missed sitting down with family for home-cooked meals. So he created something of an oxymoron: a place to go out for a home-cooked meal.
He opened the restaurant and put an ad in the paper. "It said, in Italian, 'We're looking for housewives to cook regional food at our restaurant,'" Scaravella translates.
There's no head chef at Enoteca Maria. Instead, the meals are cooked by a rotating group of genuine Italian grandmas, or "nonnas," whose talents go beyond standard fare.
When he brings a nonna in for interview, Scaravella doesn't ask them to cook. "If I talk to them for five minutes, I know if they can cook or they can't cook ... I just get a feeling, you know. And I'm usually right on," Scaravella says.
"I'll ask them certain questions, like ... what food they grew up with. What food their mother made for them," he says.
If they respond with typical Italian restaurant fare like chicken parmesan or eggplant — using the dishes' English names — Scaravella says he knows immediately that "it's not the right fit."
One of Enoteca Maria's newer nonnas is 58-year-old Giovana Gambino. The mother of three children, she's also a grandmother of three. On a recent day, she prepared some of her specialty dishes for the dinner crowd.
"This is eggplant ... celery, green olives, some capers," Gambino explains, offering a taste. "You know what? I kind of do things from my heart, and everything comes out delicious, I gotta be honest."
Gambino's also proud of her own variation of a centuries-old Sicilian dish, arancini: fried rice balls coated with bread crumbs and traditionally stuffed with meat sauce, mozzarella and peas.
"I did not make them the traditional way, which is with the meat sauce," Gambino says. "What I did was, I put [in] a lot of kinds of cheeses, mozzarella and some proscioutto, and some ricotta as well ... I try not to do the same thing constantly."
Gambino learned how to cook when she was a little girl growing up in Palermo, Sicily. She was used to cooking for a big family, but cooking in a restaurant for strangers has felt different, she says. And she likes it.
"These are people I've never met," Gambino says. "So when they tell you, 'Oh, I love your cooking,' ... that makes me feel real good."
Enoteca Maria has been open for five years. Scaravella doesn't make a lot of money off the restaurant, he says. Instead, he does it for the homey — not to mention lively — atmosphere the eight or so nonnas create.
"You can't really put too many of them together," he says. "Especially in the kitchen. Because you're gonna see, sparks are gonna fly."
Despite some occasional tension, Scaravella says lots of hugging kissing goes on at the restaurant, mostly between satisfied customers and the nonnas. There's nothing like a meal cooked by a grandmother, he says.
Recipe: Giovana Gambino's Cheesy Arancini
Giovana Gambino of Enoteca Maria says this version of the classic Sicilian dish is simple enough for anyone to make.
For the rice mixture
1 lb. rice (any type)
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella
2 egg yolks
salt and pepper, to taste
2 egg yolks to coat rice balls
For the coating
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1 cup breadcrumbs (plain or Italian seasoned)
Cook the rice according to package directions. Let cool.
Heat oil in a deep fryer for frying. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Mix the first six ingredients together in a mixing bowl. With your hands, shape the mixture into small balls.
Combine the water and flour in a small bowl, and roll the balls in the flour mixture to coat.
Roll each ball in the breadcrumbs.
Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer and carefully place rice balls in the fryer and cook until golden.
Remove from oil, place in a baking dish and bake in the oven for five to six minutes.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to occasionally take you with us to some restaurants over the next few months. We're looking for places that teach us something about cooking and also life. And one place that caught our attention was Enoteca Maria on Staten Island. After losing his mom and sister, Joe Scaravella was missing sitting down with family for home-cooked meals. And so he created something of an oxymoron - a place to go out for a home-cooked meal. He opened the restaurant and put an ad in the paper...
JOE SCARAVELLA: It said in Italian, it said (foreign language spoken), which basically means we're looking for housewives to cook regional food at our restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: That's right. At Enoteca Maria, there's no head chef. Instead, the meals are cooked by a rotating group of genuine Italian grandmas, or nonnas. When he brings a nonna in for an interview Scaravella doesn't even ask them to cook.
SCARAVELLA: If I talk to them for five minutes, I know if they can cook or they can't cook. I know.
GREENE: How do you know?
SCARAVELLA: I know. I just get a feeling, you know? And I'm usually right on. You know, I only ask them certain questions. Like I'll ask them what food they grew up with. What food their mother made for them. And as soon as they start saying chicken parmesan, eggplant, as soon as they start saying that, I know that it's not the right fit.
GREENE: One person who was the right fit is one of Joe's newer nonnas, 58-year-old Giovana Gambino.
GIOVANA GAMBINO: Trish, what am I making tonight? Where's the menu?
GREENE: She's a mother of three, grandmother of three. And on the day I met her, she was preparing some of her specialty dishes for the dinner crowd.
This is a vat of something delicious. What is in here?
GAMBINO: This is eggplant. Taste it. Eggplant, celery, green olives, some capers.
GREENE: Mmm, that's very good.
GAMBINO: Did you think it was delicious? You tried it.
GREENE: I think it was delicious.
GAMBINO: You know what? I kind of do things from heart. And everything comes out delicious, I've got to be honest.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: I've got to be honest as well. Gambino gave my taste buds quite a treat, especially with her own variation of a centuries-old Sicilian dish, Arancini. Traditionally, Arancini are these fried rice balls coated with bread crumbs and stuffed with meat sauce, mozzarella cheese and peas.
GAMBINO: I did not make them the traditional way, which is with the meat sauce. What I did was I put a lot of kinds of cheeses - mozzarella and some prosciutto and then some ricotta as well.
GREENE: So it's a cheese mix?
GREENE: Because usually it's meat, peas and a little bit of cheese that go in there.
GAMBINO: Yeah. Yeah. But I try not to do the same thing, you know, constantly.
GREENE: You know, she likes to try and mix it up. Well, Gambino learned how to cook when she was a little girl growing up in Palermo, Sicily. She was used to cooking for a big family, but cooking in a restaurant for strangers has felt different and she kind of likes it.
GAMBINO: Family knows. These are people I never met. So when they tell you, oh, I loved your cooking and this and that, that makes me feel real good.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Enoteca Maria has been open for five years now and Scaravella says he doesn't make a lot of money from the restaurant. He does it for the homey atmosphere that the nonnas create.
SCARAVELLA: There's about eight or nine of them now. And even though they're...
SCARAVELLA: Well, I don't know how much of a family - you can't really put too many of them together, especially in the kitchen, because there's these sparks are going to fly.
GREENE: Has that happened?
SCARAVELLA: Oh yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Well, despite that occasional tension, Scaravella says there's a lot of hugging and kissing that goes on at the restaurant and usually it's between satisfied customers and the nonnas who cook their meals. Joe Scaravella says there's nothing like a meal cooked by a grandmother. And you can find a simple recipe for Arancini that anyone can make, at least that's what Gambino says. That recipe's at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.