“We are not chefs. We are just grandmothers (who are) sharing our culture,” Maral Tseylikman said as she sat in the dining room at Enoteca Maria, where she's worked for seven years.
The Staten Island, New York eatery has a unique concept: With the idea that no one cooks a more heartful meal better than a grandmother, the restaurant is home to a rotating cast of grandmothers — or nonnas — who cook the meals they’ve been providing their families for generations.
On March 8, TODAY’s Donna Farizan visited with some of the grandmothers who join culinary forces at Enoteca Maria for dinner service three nights a week. It features a fixed, regular Italian menu depending on which nonnas are cooking that night, a variety of each grandmother’s culture’s cuisine.
“I’m making lasagna. I’m making meatball. I’m making rabbit. I’m making so much fish, everything,” Maria Gialanella told Donna.
Donna spent time talking to chefs and grandmas Tseylikman from Azerbaijan, Gialanella from Italy, and May "Dolly" Joseph from Sri Lanka during her visit to restaurant. Each one of these ladies has been serving dishes from its kitchen for at least seven years, with Gialanella boasting a decade of service.
There, they talked about the women’s experiences with one another, preparing the dishes they know best and serving happy patrons, saying friends and happiness come with the job.
“Meeting people from different countries … there are so many people who come here from different countries. They hear about this place, and they come,” Joseph said.
It’s not only the patrons that hail from different countries, either; the women who staff the kitchen have hailed from many different countries: Bangladesh, Algeria, Trinidad, Syria, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Belarus, Poland, France and quite a few from Italy.
The restaurant’s owner, Joe Scaravella, started the project in part to honor his own Italian heritage and his nonna, mother and sister who have all since passed.
“Many times, these women are empty nesters, their husbands have passed away. Their children have moved out,” Scaravella told Donna. “So, they’re really looking for an outlet and they have it here. And you know, if they’re not hugging me, they’re hugging their customers.”
When Scaravella opened the restaurant in 2007, he decided to name it in his mother Maria’s honor.
“It was grief-driven and I had no business plan. I had no experience. I never even worked in a restaurant, no idea what I was doing. And so it just kind of unfolded,” Scaravella said.
Shortly after opening his doors, he opened his kitchen to the nonnas of the world, first inviting strictly Italian grannies into the shop’s kitchen and later, grandmothers from all over the world in July 2015.
With decades upon decades of experience between them, the chefs at Enoteca Maria say that they all learned how to cook from a very young age from their parents. They aren’t just doing it for themselves and their families, but for all the customers who come in the door.
“Everybody, they’re kissing me. They wanna make a photograph with me,” Gialanella said. “Everybody say, ‘Oh, I love you, I’ll come again. I wanna see you again.’”
Luckily for those who have a favorite grandma — other than their own, of course — the restaurant has a “Nonnas Calendar” that tells customers which featured grandma will be in that night.
Still, with all the love these ladies are receiving at the restaurant, they say that they have, in fact, passed on their knowledge and love of cooking to their families.
“My son really like to cook,” Gialanella said. “My son, oh, fuhgeddaboudit.”
“My granddaughter, she was even about three years, and she crack eggs like professional,” Tseylikman said with a laugh.