At Enoteca Maria, grandmothers, not chefs, staff the kitchen. So when owner Jody Scaravella decided to offer cooking classes, naturally, he made them free. Would your nonna charge you to help out in the kitchen?
"I just felt that it would cheapen the experience to charge for it," Scaravella said during the post-lunch lull at his Staten Island restaurant this week.
Scaravella's restaurant has made headlines worldwide for employing Italian nonnas in the kitchen and turning out plates of rustic meals that remind diners of Sunday dinner. Recently, after years of watching people from every kind of culture come sample Italian grandmothers' food, he decided that people might like to try traditional cooking from elsewhere in the world — and recruited a slate of international nonnas to share the restaurant with the Italians.
If there's a catch to the free cooking class, it's that you can't pick which cuisine your nonna will specialize in.
"Basically what we’re doing is just taking different cultures and putting them together, and that’s really what we’re about," Scaravella said.
A little mystery about what you'll be cooking seems a small price to pay — or really no price at all — in exchange for a spot in these one-on-one cooking classes, which Enoteca Maria will offer from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Given the publicity and the crowds that flock to his small restaurant, people surely would have paid for the chance to cook with a nonna and, perhaps, bring back memories of cooking in their own grandmothers' kitchens. But Scaravella said he just couldn't bring himself to charge for it.
"I didn’t feel right about it," he said. "But I don’t feel right about charging for a lot of things."
Frequent diners at Enoteca Maria know that well. An order of espresso at the restaurant often arrives with the standard sugar, plus an entire bottle of sambuca for topping it off, on the house.
For an idea of what you might learn to cook, on Thursday, the restaurant's downstairs kitchen was occupied, as it is every day it's open, by an Italian nonna — Adelina Orazzo, from Casola di Napoli. Her menu included long hot peppers stuffed with sausage, cheese and breadcrumbs, four-cheese ravioli, homemade tagliatelle pasta in a fava bean and wild fennel sauce, and veal braciola, rolls of meat filled with vegetables and mozzarella cheese in red sauce. There were also Italian delicacies less common in the United States, like a whole stuffed sheep’s head.
The international nonna, Isioma Edu, was in the upstairs kitchen cooking food from Nigeria — including Egusi soup, made with goat meat, beef, dry fish, smoked turkey, dry shrimp, melon seeds and pounded yams. There was also a salad of oil bean seeds, eggplant, hot green peppers, dried crayfish, palm oil, stock fish and onions.
The only requirements for the class are a hat, closed-toe shoes and an apron. To sign up for the cooking classes, visit Enoteca Maria's website and fill out the registration form, indicating when you are available to attend, and Scaravella will match you with an available nonna as soon as possible (though he cautioned there may be a wait).