When COVID-19 overtook New York City, restaurant owner Joe Scaravella didn’t think twice about closing Enoteca Maria, one of Staten Island’s most beloved eateries.
He decided the chefs — a rotating posse of grandmas with roots from around the world — were too vulnerable.
“They’re in their sixties, seventies, eighties,” said Scaravella. “They can’t participate in this staying-open experiment.”
But after months of only serving meals to essential workers on weekends, some of the nonnas — Italian for “grandmothers” — are finally back in the kitchen part-time.
They each come on different days to make vats of “Nonnas of the World” sauces from their home country that the restaurant sells in mason jars, online and in person, Wednesday through Sunday.
And while Scaravella said the effort won’t pay all the bills, he’s hoping the pivot will keep the restaurant’s brand alive until he finds a safe way to isolate the nonnas for indoor dining.
On Friday, Rosa Correa, who is originally from Lima and started cooking at Enoteca Maria in 2015, returned for the first time in months to make aji amarillo, a thick and flavorful Peruvian sauce that balances a pepper-powered heat with fruity notes.
“It goes with beef, chicken, pasta. I mean it’s a sauce that you can eat with many things,” Correa, 77, told THE CITY in Spanish. “People should know it, right? I hope they like it — at least Mr. Scaravella did. I’m happy about that.”
Correa’s sauce is the fifth to be jarred and sold by Enoteca Maria. Several other nonnas have also returned to make a sauce.
Nonna Pauline, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, produced a spicy tamarind sauce. Adelina, the restaurant’s resident Italian nonna, cooked up suga alla norma, a tomato sauce she makes with roasted eggplants.
‘They Love the Food’
Correa, who adorned a baseball cap with “PERU” plastered on it, considers the sauce-making to be a light job: “We aren’t working. I just come to make salsas to put in jars.”
She fondly recalls when she’d do full-day takeovers of the restaurant’s upstairs kitchen, and is pining for a return to those duties.
Correa, who has lived on Staten Island for 16 years, never cooked professionally before working at the Hyatt Street eatery.
Her daughter-in-law applied for her after seeing a callout for grandma-chefs. Then, Correa, her daughter-in-law and her son all went to interview with Scaravella.
After seeing on her first day how much customers enjoyed her food, Correa’s confidence quickly grew.
“I have a lot of clients here that take pictures with me,” said Correa, who has been cooking since she was 12. “They call me over to the table to congratulate me, and it’s obvious they are happy and love the food.”
Before shutting its doors in March, Enoteca Maria, a small and intimate restaurant, ran two separate kitchens. Half offered a fixed Italian menu, while the other half changed daily, as the roster of nonnas whipped up dishes from their homelands.
Scaravella started the restaurant in March 2007 out of a labor of love after his sister, grandmother and mother had passed away. His mother, Maria, is the restaurant’s namesake and Scaravella has sought to instill a maternal element in the restaurant from day one.
Scaravella, who had no business experience before opening Enoteca Maria, said he wanted to provide a homestyle experience for customers.
“If it pays for itself, I’m happy,” he said.
‘I’m Going to Pray Hard’
The street where the restaurant sits is starkly different than it was in pre-pandemic times.
Many of Hyatt Street’s small businesses typically serve workers from the slew of government agencies in the surrounding area. But many of those employees are working from home now.
Large operations have been struggling, too.
Empire Outlets, the city’s first outlet mall, has been missing loan payments and sits half-filled in its waterfront perch next to the St. George Ferry Terminal.
A block away, the Staten Island Yankees’ stadium went unused this summer and the minor league club in danger of losing its affiliation with Major League Baseball. And next to that, the base for a giant Ferris wheel has sat untouched and incomplete for years.
Correa said her part-time return has been bittersweet, noting the closed Hyatt Street businesses she sees when she takes the train home.
“It makes me sad, because many people live from that work,” she said. “I hope it ends soon. I’m going to pray hard to God.”