When COVID hit the city, Jody Scaravella, the owner of Staten Island’s Enoteca Maria restaurant, decided his chefs — a rotating posse of grandmothers with roots from around the world — were too vulnerable to keep working.
He closed up shop. But some of the restaurant’s nonnas –– Italian for “grandmothers” –– couldn’t quite keep away over the past 17 months.
They served meals to essential workers on weekends. They stopped by one at a time on different days last year and made vats of sauces from their home countries that Enoteca Maria sold in mason jars online and in person to stay afloat.
Now that all of the grandmas and staffers are fully vaccinated, the restaurant is set to fully reopen on Friday — debuting with Sri Lankan food on the second floor and Italian dishes, as always, on the ground level. On Saturday, Peruvian fare will be featured upstairs.
The extended shutdown has also inspired Scaravella to go fully organic and add Shojin Ryori — a vegetarian style of eating first consumed by monks in Buddhist temples centuries ago — to the fixed menu.
“I feel like since we have a second chance to do this, we want to do everything even better,” said Scaravella. “The grandmothers are happy to be back and we feel honored and privileged to be able to do this again, which is why we’re doing this rebirth and going organic as we can possibly go.”
Adding a New Flavor
Chefs Adelina Orazzo and Yumi Komatsudaira, who have roots in Italy and Japan respectively, made fresh mozzarella on Thursday as vendors and staffers whizzed in and out in preparation for opening day.
At one point, 65-year-old Orazzo, who runs the fixed Italian menu, came up to ask Scaravella a question about Friday’s marinara sauce, but he quickly cut her off.
“You’re the nonna! I want you to say, ‘I know what I’m doing’ and tell me to get the hell out of the way,” Scaravella shouted playfully, noting that that’s what his own late grandmother used to tell him.
Komatsudaira, who started working at Maria Enoteca as a “nonna in training” in 2016 under the tutelage of a Polish grandma, kept busy with menu planning.
“I like old-style cooking,” said Komatsudaira, who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and is the only nonna who isn’t technically a grandmother — yet. (An exception was made for the mere 52-year-old, given her skill and passion for passing down what her grandmother taught her).
While the restaurant was closed, Komatsudaira kept busy remotely teaching others how to cook Japanese dishes. She noticed an increased interest in Shojin Ryori, which she attributes to people being more observant of their health in the wake of the pandemic.
The actual contents of Shojin Ryori can vary, though the meal has to be made up of five different dishes with green, yellow, red, black and white coloring. Those dishes should all have unique flavoring as well: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami or savory.
“Japanese cuisine is very simply prepared. There aren’t a lot of spices or harsh flavors,” said Komatsudaira. “Instead, we really embrace the flavor of its ingredients.”
Labors of Love
Before shutting its doors in the early weeks of the pandemic, Enoteca Maria, which is just blocks from the St. George Ferry Terminal, would run two separate kitchens. One would be a fixed Italian menu, with the other changing daily, as the rotating roster of nonnas whipped up dishes from their homelands.
Over the past year the sauce sales alone weren’t enough to cover the bills, although they helped keep the brand alive, Scaravella said.
After everyone was vaccinated, many of the grandmothers were itching to get back to the kitchen. So they stopped selling sauce in June to focus on reopening.
Scaravella started the restaurant in March 2007 as 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 or cooking experience before opening Enoteca Maria, said he wanted to provide a homestyle experience for customers.
The homestyle experience is being tested throughout the city with the new requirement that any customers eating indoors must show proof of vaccination. Some Staten Island politicians and restaurant owners have been particularly outspoken against the mandate.
The Independent Restaurant Owners Association Rescue, which represents 200 restaurants largely in Staten Island and Brooklyn, on Tuesday filed a lawsuit opposing the rule, calling it “arbitrary, irrational, unscientific, and unlawful.”
‘It’s Been Hell’
Scaravella has been explaining to concerned customers who’ve called in that he has no intention of fighting the requirement.
“We don’t make the rules, we just have to follow them. Whether they’re health department rules, liquor licenses rules, mandate for vaccine rules,” Scaravella said in between taking reservations. “If you don’t follow it they’ll fine us out of existence. ... It’s not about what we want to do or not want to do, it’s about what the rule is.”
He’s just glad to be reopening — and so are his many nonnas.
“It’s been hell for me and a lot of other restaurateurs. Not being able to open up, not being able to give service,” said Scaravela. “Especially for us because we have the grandmothers, so we have to be extra careful.”