I grew up on a garden full of vegetables my grandmother looked after in the country, toast, butter and homemade strawberry and cherry jam, aubergine salad, chicken soup, meatball soup, tripe soup, polenta, fried pork and scrambled eggs, apple pies, a flurry of lamb and pork dishes that my family made for Easter and Christmas and my grandfather’s red wine, which fermented in wooden barrels every autumn.
I gave up traditional Romanian food as I grew up and started dieting as a teenager, moved to school in the big city and aimed to become a model, travelled abroad and experienced different cuisines, and tried to change to a raw vegan lifestyle altogether.
However, it’s impossible to resist my mother’s cooking every time I go home. On the one hand because of nostalgia, on the other because, true to every Romanian and Latin cook for that matter, my mother takes the task of feeding me very seriously. Saying ‘no’ to an extra few servings is never an option.
And no matter how hard I try to fight it when I am abroad, the thought that a nearby restaurant may be serving the food that I grew up on stirs some sort of hereditary cellular memories that I simply need to live again.
I visited Staten Island at the weekend and went to Enoteca Maria, a restaurant where different ‘grandmas’ the world over cook for New Yorkers who are looking for an authentic, homemade culinary experience.
The restaurant is owned and run by Joe Scaravella. I met him as soon as I went in and got a seat at the bar. “A very interesting seat”, regulars told me later in the evening, the sort from where you can see everything that is happening and still have your privacy; exactly to my liking.
The place is very chatty and familiar and I talked sporadically with Joe throughout the evening, telling him how I had come to find out about his restaurant, how Romanians make wine and he telling me the simple philosophy of his place.
The restaurant started with nine Italian ‘grandmas’ who cooked “the food that their mothers had cooked for them when they were children”. Now ‘grandmas’ from other regions and countries cook at ‘Enoteca Maria’ and customers love it. The restaurant was full and I watched Joe take more than a dozen calls for bookings throughout the evening.
The ‘grandma’ of the evening was a Turkish woman called Fatima. I didn’t opt for any of her dishes. Instead, I chose the grilled octopus with a side of vegetables and a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio. Dessert was a mouth-watering coffee ice cream dipped in espresso.
Later in the evening, two regular customers came by. Their names were Judith and Gareth and they were on their way back from the march that took place in New York at the weekend. It was perhaps the most genuine conversation I have ever had in a restaurant, proof of the fact that food breaks down barriers of culture, background and class, helps people connect, communicate and have a meaningful and authentic interaction. Does this mean the way of understanding one another goes also through our stomachs?
More on Enoteca Maria at the following links:
Instagram: Enoteca Maria