ST. GEORGE, Staten Island (WABC) -- Inside the kitchen of a cozy Staten Island restaurant, 84-year-old Maria Gialanella stuffs a creamy spinach and ricotta mixture into a ravioli mold, which will be cooked and served to dozens of hungry customers.
Gialanella has no professional training. In fact, this is her first restaurant gig since her teenage years, but one qualification makes her food absolutely irresistible: She's a grandmother.
At Enoteca Maria, just blocks away from the ferry terminal, grandmas run the kitchen. Gialanella is one of more than 30 grandmas, or nonnas, who cook the cuisines of their ancestors.
Nonna Maria, as she's called there, is Italian, but the Enoteca's nonnas represent every corner of the world, from Argentina to Sri Lanka.
"The grandma has more esperienza," Nonna Maria told Eyewitness News anchor Ken Rosato. "Professional chefs are different because the mother, grandma, has more experience. The grandma (is better) than the mother, because what the grandma (knows), the mama don't know."
Enoteca Maria Owner Jody Scaravella is well aware of Nonna Maria's added touch.
"Professional chefs do a great job imitating different dishes. In my opinion, these ladies are the source," he said. "They're the vessels that carry this culture forward."
When Scaravella opened his restaurant 12 years ago, he only hired Italian nonnas from different regions of Italy. Three years into the project, however, Scaravella said he felt the need to celebrate everybody's culture and introduced the restaurant to its first international nonna, who was from Pakistan.
Now the restaurant has two kitchens. The downstairs kitchen is always run by an Italian grandma, and the open-concept kitchen upstairs allows customers to watch one of the rotating nonnas prepare her food.
Open Thursday through Sunday, Enoteca Maria changes its menu every day. Trinidadian Nonna Pauline Findlay may serve her oxtail with peas, rice, and fried plantains one night, and Yiddish Nonna Judy Hiller-Schwartz could make her knishes the next.
For Scaravella, opening Enoteca Maria was a way to cope with the passings of own nonna and mother. The concept allowed him to recreate this part of his life that he lost.
"Basically, I was trying to comfort myself," he said.
The customers love it too. Scaravella said every single day, he hears customers share memories of their own nonnas.
"I think that's how we know who were are. It's what we get from our mothers and our grandmothers and from generations to where we are now. That's how we really understand our culture," he said.
Enoteca Maria is located at 27 Hyatt Street in Staten Island. It's open from 12:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.