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Enoteca Maria’s Syrian ‘nonna’ teaches cooking and understanding on Staten Island

A kitchen is a good place to get to know somebody.

Zena Mofsessian is a Syrian grandmother. She and I don’t speak the same language. We don’t come from the same place, or the same generation. We don’t share the same life experiences, or cook the same kinds of food. But on a recent Thursday, in the small galley kitchen at Enoteca Maria, Mofsessian and I glided past the language barrier to cook together.

“A smile means it all,” Jody Scaravella, the owner of the Italian-gone-international restaurant on Staten Island, told me. “That shows that you’re in.”

Mofsessian and her husband fled their hometown, war-torn Al-Qamishli, Syria, three years ago, and relocated to my hometown: Staten Island, where their son is a doctor. Her daughter-in-law spotted a Craigslist ad posted by Enoteca Maria, a restaurant famous for employing Italian nonnas, or grandmothers, instead of professionally trained chefs. The restaurant was expanding to include a rotating cast of international grandmothers, and Mofsessian became one of them.

And now, the restaurant has taken the concept even further with the “Nonnas In Training” program — a free, one-on-one cooking class experience with nonnas like Mofsessian, referred to as “nonna Zena” around the restaurant. That is how I came to find myself as her sous chef on an afternoon before dinner service.

Jillian Jorgensen