At this restaurant, real Italian grandmas rule the kitchen

Nov. 21, 2012 at 9:30 AM ET

The grandmas behind Enoteca Maria visited TODAY Wednesday.

Mangia, mangia!

At Enoteca Maria, the food won’t just remind you of what Grandma used to make; peek into the kitchen, and you’ll see that Grandma actually IS making it.

The cooks at this Staten Island restaurant are a rotating crew of Italian grandmothers -- or “nonnas” -- who change up the menu daily depending on available ingredients, individual whims, and what the other nonnas made on past days. Not even the restaurant’s owner knows what’s cooking on some nights.

“I’m only the boss in title. I mean, who do you think the real boss is here?” owner Jody Scaravella told TODAY’s Maria Schiavocampo Wednesday.

When he opened the restaurant in 2007, Scaravella envisioned a place that reminded him of his childhood growing up in a big Italian family. “I recreated the exact same feeling that I was missing. It was grandmother in the kitchen cooking,” he said.

The cooks at Enoteca Maria represent different parts of Italy and share a passion for classic regional dishes. Most of the nonnas, who speak more Italian than English, learned about the job through newspapers and had no previous restaurant experience. Nonna Luisa Mosconi said the idea of working in a restaurant terrified her until she spent a day on the job; she then realized it wasn’t much different than cooking at home.

The other nonnas feel the same way. They approach their jobs as if they're cooking for family.

“We cherish and we take pride in everything that we cook. Our dishes have to be to our standards,” said Rosaria Vigorito. “We will not send it out or have anybody eat it unless it's perfect to our tastes.”

The nonnas share their recipes with each other, but have individual specialities. Sometimes, they also get a bit competitive.

When Matt Lauer asked all the nonnas who among them was the best cook, hands immediately shot up in Studio 1A. “Me,” they all answered at once.

Here, Nonna Rosaria Vigorito shares her pasta, sauce and signature strawberry shortcake recipes.

Homemade pasta

There are various ways of making the pasta dough. I will submit one that can easily be made with typical items most of us usually have on hand.

1 to 2 large eggs for every one cup of all-purpose flour

I add the salt to the water and not to my homemade pasta

Make a well with the flour, and add the eggs according to the texture and feel of this dough, mixing it until it’s a firm, workable dough. This dough must rest covered, with either a bowl large enough to go over, or plastic wrap. I usually leave it for approximately 6 minutes.

I use a pasta machine, but if you don't have one, use a rolling pin and roll this out as thinly as you can get it. Make sure you flour your board while doing this. Once this is evenly rolled out, fold it over and cut it from the edge, creating long strips of pasta when unfolded.

Boil enough salted water (which should taste like the ocean water). When this water comes to a rapid boil, throw the pasta noodles, or whatever pasta of your choice, and as soon as it begins to float, it’s ready

Basic marinara alla Rosaria:

In my region of Italy, the sauce of choice would be with sausage, however, you can omit the meat.

  • 1 can or bottled sauce, around 28 ounces
  • 1 large Vidalia onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt, pepper, olive oil
  • 2 sausage links

For sausage:

Take the sausage out its casing. Sear the meat quickly and on high heat, put aside.

For sauce:

Fry the onion in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your pan and cook this onion slowly till soft and transparent. Add the garlic towards the end of this stage, so you don't burn it.

Add your sauce, the bay leaf and the raw carrot to cook together. This will naturally sweeten the sauce as well as remove any bitterness from the acidic tomatoes. Add salt and pepper of your choosing to taste. Cook for thirty minutes, and then add cooked sausage and cook for another 15 minutes.

For my signature dessert, strawberry shortcake

  • 2 pints of fresh strawberries
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup of shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup of milk (whole)
  • 2 cups of whipped heavy cream

Set oven to 425 degrees.

Slice strawberries and toss with 2 tbsp of sugar, and set aside.

Grease and flour 2 8-inch round pans.

Combine flour, baking powder, 1/2 cup of sugar, and salt. Cut in the shortening until the dough is course. Make a well, and add the egg with the milk. Stir to combine. Never overly mix. Make 2 equal pans of this mix, and bake until completely cooked.

When cooled, layer bottom cake with the whipped cream and sweetened strawberries. Add top cake, and continue the layering, adding the whipped cream on top.

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