America is dotted with countless restaurants large and small. Many of those are well-loved for their distinct character — and for what they can teach diners about cooking, and about life.
One such establishment is Enoteca Maria, an Italian restaurant on New York's Staten Island.
After losing his mom and sister, owner Joe Scaravella missed sitting down with family for home-cooked meals. So he created something of an oxymoron: a place to go out for a home-cooked meal.
He opened the restaurant and put an ad in the paper. "It said, in Italian, 'We're looking for housewives to cook regional food at our restaurant,'" Scaravella translates.
There's no head chef at Enoteca Maria. Instead, the meals are cooked by a rotating group of genuine Italian grandmas, or "nonnas," whose talents go beyond standard fare.
When he brings a nonna in for interview, Scaravella doesn't ask them to cook. "If I talk to them for five minutes, I know if they can cook or they can't cook ... I just get a feeling, you know. And I'm usually right on," Scaravella says.
"I'll ask them certain questions, like ... what food they grew up with. What food their mother made for them," he says.
If they respond with typical Italian restaurant fare like chicken parmesan or eggplant — using the dishes' English names — Scaravella says he knows immediately that "it's not the right fit."
One of Enoteca Maria's newer nonnas is 58-year-old Giovana Gambino. The mother of three children, she's also a grandmother of three. On a recent day, she prepared some of her specialty dishes for the dinner crowd.
"This is eggplant ... celery, green olives, some capers," Gambino explains, offering a taste. "You know what? I kind of do things from my heart, and everything comes out delicious, I gotta be honest."
Gambino's also proud of her own variation of a centuries-old Sicilian dish, arancini: fried rice balls coated with bread crumbs and traditionally stuffed with meat sauce, mozzarella and peas.
"I did not make them the traditional way, which is with the meat sauce," Gambino says. "What I did was, I put [in] a lot of kinds of cheeses, mozzarella and some proscioutto, and some ricotta as well ... I try not to do the same thing constantly."
Gambino learned how to cook when she was a little girl growing up in Palermo, Sicily. She was used to cooking for a big family, but cooking in a restaurant for strangers has felt different, she says. And she likes it.
"These are people I've never met," Gambino says. "So when they tell you, 'Oh, I love your cooking,' ... that makes me feel real good."
Enoteca Maria has been open for five years. Scaravella doesn't make a lot of money off the restaurant, he says. Instead, he does it for the homey — not to mention lively — atmosphere the eight or so nonnas create.
"You can't really put too many of them together," he says. "Especially in the kitchen. Because you're gonna see, sparks are gonna fly."
Despite some occasional tension, Scaravella says lots of hugging kissing goes on at the restaurant, mostly between satisfied customers and the nonnas. There's nothing like a meal cooked by a grandmother, he says.
Recipe: Giovana Gambino's Cheesy Arancini
Giovana Gambino of Enoteca Maria says this version of the classic Sicilian dish is simple enough for anyone to make.
For the rice mixture
1 lb. rice (any type)
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella
2 egg yolks
salt and pepper, to taste
2 egg yolks to coat rice balls
For the coating
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1 cup breadcrumbs (plain or Italian seasoned)
Cook the rice according to package directions. Let cool.
Heat oil in a deep fryer for frying. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Mix the first six ingredients together in a mixing bowl. With your hands, shape the mixture into small balls.
Combine the water and flour in a small bowl, and roll the balls in the flour mixture to coat.
Roll each ball in the breadcrumbs.
Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer and carefully place rice balls in the fryer and cook until golden.
Remove from oil, place in a baking dish and bake in the oven for five to six minutes.