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Eat and Drink

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.

Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

"Syrian food used to be very very famous before the war, even in Europe. If you go to Germany or Italy you will find places that sell the Syrian food," she told me later, as translated by Khalida Djeriou, a waitress who speaks Arabic.

There are rules to the program, of course.
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

There are rules to the program, of course. When you sign up, you can't choose which nonna you'll work with; you must wear a hat (the only one I own is a Mets ball cap, but that sufficed), an apron, long pants and closed-toe shoes. I hand-washed obsessively and usually wore gloves, which came in particularly handy while working with beets.

The menu for the evening included Four Season
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The menu for the evening included Four Season Salad of corn, grated beets and carrots, and shredded cabbage in a mayonnaise-lemon vinaigrette; Salatet Batata, a potato salad with tomatoes, parsley and Arab spices; Tawayat Lahma, layers of ground beef, onion, pepper and tomatoes baked with a side of rice; and Meshakela, a combination of vegetables and ground beef cooked in a massive stock pot. For dessert, there was Ash el Saraya -- pieces of bread topped with a sweet white cream called Keshta, made fragrant with orange blossom water.

Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

"These dishes are from our ancestors, from our mothers and grandmothers. They used to make it the same way and I keep the same way," she said. "It's like the lasagna or the pasta for the Italians."

Mofsessian speaks Arabic, and I am sorry to
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Mofsessian speaks Arabic, and I am sorry to say I didn't know a word of it until the photographer shooting the class taught me thank you: "shukraan." Nonetheless, we communicated through the language of food.

Carrots placed next to a peeler gave me
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Carrots placed next to a peeler gave me pretty good idea of what she wanted; once peeled, out came the box grater. The same went for beets.

When I was chopping onions and tomatoes, a
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

When I was chopping onions and tomatoes, a knowing glance would clue me in to whether I was making the cuts a little too thick or too thin.

"Thank you -- shukraan," I offered more than once.

"Thank you," Mofsessian often replied.

Like all the nonnas at Enoteca Maria, she'd
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Like all the nonnas at Enoteca Maria, she'd never worked in a professional kitchen before.

"When you are young and you have kids, you have to stay home and cook for your kids. You have no time to work," she said. "Now they are all adults, and they all fly."

One daughter lives in Canada; another lives in Lebanon. Her son is in Staten Island.

"All my family run away to Lebanon, they live in Lebanon now," she said. "But the family of my husband, they're still there in Syria. They live in Syria."

For Scaravella, having Mofsessian in the kitchen puts
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

For Scaravella, having Mofsessian in the kitchen puts a face on the conversation surrounding Syrian refugees. Just days after my visit, President Donald Trump announced plans to suspend visas for seven countries, including Syria.

"I think it's really important for everybody to see these people as real people. They're too thought of as just a number," Scaravella said. "I think it's really important that they really come out and they stand in front of you, because we've become so disconnected that we can't imagine the appalling situation that they're living under."

He's seen Mofsessian dissolve into tears while describing
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

He's seen Mofsessian dissolve into tears while describing her experiences. "I can't imagine what that has to be like," he said. "We have no perception. Our point of view is so limited."

Scaravella still serves Italian food cooked by a nonna each night -- it is what the restaurant is known for, after all -- but it's not your typical red-sauce fare. Don't come looking for chicken parmigiana. And come with an open mind to the foods from other cultures on the menu.

Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

"A lot of people come in and say no we want Italian, we only want Italian. I mean, but why?" he asked. "If you're going into a place that's doing something that's never been done before, don't you want to open yourself up to that experience? Don't you want to see what it's all about? You want to come in and you want to set the rules? If that's the way it is, there's plenty of places you can go to and do that."

"This," Scaravella continued, "is not that place."

During our lesson, we finished making the Four
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

During our lesson, we finished making the Four Season Salad, left, and the Salatet Batata. (The other dishes continued to cook after the lesson was finished.)

To sign up for the Nonnas In Training
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

To sign up for the Nonnas In Training program, offered Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 3 p.m., visit the restaurant's website.

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