Restaurant Staffed by Italian Grandmothers to Reveal Secrets in Cookbook

By Nicholas Rizzi on September 4, 2014 7:41am | Updated on September 5, 2014 4:29pm

ST. GEORGE — When Jody Scarvella opened his restaurant Enoteca Maria in St. George, he wanted a way to bring Italian home cooking to people who pined for their grandmothers' cooking.

The eatery at 27 Hyatt St. hired a different grandma as head chef each night — and got them to cook up specialties from the region of Italy they emigrated from.

"[People] come to the restaurant and that grandma who's cooking for the night becomes everybody's grandmother," Scarvella said. "The restaurant was a way to have all these Italian women cooking and creating that atmosphere."

Now, Scarvella is expanding his plan by releasing a cookbook — to bring his restaurant's dishes into your home.

"Nonna's House: Cooking and Reminiscing with Italian Grandmothers at Enoteca Maria," set to be released next year by Simon & Schuster, will be a hybrid cookbook/biography featuring the dishes and stories of the 10 grandmothers who work in his restaurant.

"It's going to be a biography of all these ladies and stories about growing up in Italy and moving to the United States," he said. "And it's going to have recipes sprinkled in."

Scarvella said the book will feature 120 dishes ranging from meat and cheese lasagna to chicken alla capricciosa, with prosciutto and mushrooms.

While the book will have plenty of Italian recipes to try out, Scarvella said he was more interested in collecting the stories of his cooks, who came from parts of Italy like Naples, Palermo and Sicily and settled in New York.

"I had an idea for a biography more than a cookbook," he said. "I don't believe the world needs another cookbook."

Even so, Scarvella said he was most excited about some of the poverty-driven dishes in the book, similar to the ones his Sicilian grandmother cooked up.

"Poor people were able to eat what was available to them, what they were able to afford, parts of the animal that nobody else was interested in," he explained. "Dishes like the sheep's head — which my grandmother used to make — pigs feet or chicken feet. That's really the foundation of Italian cuisines."

But it wasn't an easy journey to get the stories or recipes down on paper, Scarvella said.

Since some of the women don't speak English and his Italian isn't great, writing down his chefs' life stories was difficult — yet not as hard as pinning down recipes from matriarchs who cook by eye.

"They don't follow any recipes," Scarvella said. "If you ask them how long the chicken needs to cook they say 'until it's done.'"

Some of his chefs were also tight-lipped about giving up some of their best dishes, including a grandmother from Naples who refused to share the secret of her Nutella cheesecake for the book.

"If you ask her for that recipe, she'll lose her memory right away," Scarvella said. "She's taking that recipe to the grave."

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