Grandmothers Teach Their Home Cuisine

Cooking with the Colombian Nonna at Enoteca Maria
Rosa Maria Ortega gets busy prepping the evening meal

As patrons ordered burratas, spicy sausages, and shrimp and garlic pasta for lunch at the Italian restaurant Enoteca Maria at Staten Island last Wednesday, two cooks dressed in aprons and hairnets, chopped up scallions, tomatoes, plantains, carrots and string beans in the open kitchen next to the bar.The older of the two women was clearly in-charge. She made the younger, me, taste the yellow, chicken-flavored rice, and instructed me on how to pull the chicken from the bones.

Oddly, we weren’t cooking the food that was being served, and several customers asked the Italian-American owner Jody Scaravella what was going on. He told them that Rosa Maria Ortega, a Colombian from Medellin was preparing a traditional meal for the dinner service. The Indian woman next to her, (me of course), was learning to cook from Ortega under a program where older women teach younger ones the secrets of cooking, called the “ Nonna-in-Training”. Nonna in Italian means grandmother.

Offered for free, Nonnas-in-Training, Scaravella’s brain child is an opportunity for others to cook with the Nonna of the Day in the kitchen and learn about her food culture. According to Scaravella, the program has a four month waiting period, and cooks get an opportunity to work with Nonnas from Liberia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Russia, Syria, and other countries. The caveat: the trainee cooks don’t get to choose the Nonna – they work with the one assigned for the day.

“Grandmothers are the repository of culture,” said Scaravella. “No one cooks better than a Nonna, and here our Nonnas cook their traditional foods that their mothers and grandmothers cooked for them.”

The Sofrito that acts as the base for many Colombian dishes

The base for most Colombian dishes 

Fifty-five year old Ortega, the restaurant’s Colombian Nonna, came to the United States almost 15 years ago for a better life for her daughter. When her daughter got married last year, her empty nest was hard on Ortega. The Nonna program was just the ticket to fill her days. Once a month, she leaves her home in New Jersey at 5 a.m. to be at the restaurant by 10 a.m.

“ I cook my food and feel happy when people like it,” said Ortega. “ I have friends here.” She leaves the restaurant at 9 p.m. and is exhausted by the end of the day. Yet, said Ortega she was happiest here and looked forward to her cooking day every month.

Nonnas like Ortega make two appetizers, two entrees and a dessert and have to cook for only 12 people. “Mothers are used to cooking for this number,” said Scaravella. “It makes it less stressful for our Nonnas, who are not professional cooks.” Besides,  he says, patrons love the food made by these Nonnas.

Last Sunday, when Nigerian Isioma Edu put together a meal, it was sold out within no time. Her red colored jollof rice with spices and meats,  and egusi soup made with palm oil, beef and fish were new to the palates of the restaurant patrons.

the chicken for the rice in its final stages of cooking

The chicken for the entree

On Wednesday, Ortega made dishes she used to love as a young girl. Arepas con hogado, a cornmeal cake with Colombian sofrito (a cooked salsa of scallions, onions, tomatoes, carrots and cilantro),  and fried plaintains or patacones with guacamole were the appetizers. Entrees included Cazuela de frijoles, a Colombian soup with plantain, pork rind, avocados, tomato, rice, cilantro and onion and Arroz con Pollo, chicken breast mixed with rice, carrot, tomato, scallions, string beans, cilantro and served with a side of sweet plantains. Pudin de Coco, or coconut pudding, was served as dessert.

Enoteca Maria employee, Nigerian Gabriel Madu, spoke fluent Spanish and discussed the bowls and plates Ortega wanted to serve in. He is friends with all the Nonnas that come to cook.

“ Sometimes Nonnas don’t speak the same language,” said Madu. “ But food is its own language.”


Ortega's popular coconut pudding

Ortega’s popular coconut pudding 

Ortega spoke no English, and I spoke no Spanish, but  our communication was constant. We  laughed, tasted foods and used hand gestures. Ortega instructed me to keep stirring the pudding so it would not stick to the pan, and would periodically remove some from the pan to check if it had set properly. She took my hand and made me touch the jelly to estimate the right jiggle and then motioned furiously to remove the pan from the fire and quickly pour it into small bowls.

She scraped the pudding from the pan and put the spoon in my mouth. “Good?” she said. “Gusta?”

It was perfect.