Each night from Wednesday through Sunday, Enoteca Maria, behind Staten Island's Borough Hall, features a different Italian grandmother cooking her hometown specialties. Hearing this, you no doubt expect red-checked tablecloths, candles stuck in Chianti bottles, heaping mounds of spaghetti, and perhaps "Volare" playing softly on the stereo, as we did. But when we walked in, that night's Nonna (Rosa from Schio, Veneto) was swaying her hips to Bright Eyes and separating rabbit parts. Few things stimulate our appetite like a thwarted cliche.
Owner Joe Scaravella wanted a restaurant that reflected the home cooking he experienced throughout Italy. So he found a bunch of grandmothers willing to trade shifts in an open galley kitchen, and Enoteca Maria opened in 2007. (Sightlines from the dining room enforce truth in advertising: it's just Nonna back there, whipping up every dish by herself.) Yet the black ceiling, wall of shiny white subway tiles, and purple and green hurricane lamps send an edgy vibe through the 15-table space.
About halfway through service, Rosa came out to kibitz, wearing a flattened toque with her name embroidered on the front. Like an Olive Garden commercial in the flesh, she put her arms around a boisterous family and asked whether everyone had enough to eat. Luckily she skipped us, as we were too busy shoveling it in to answer. Food like this takes concentration and dedication to finish.
First came the complimentary warm focaccia with different spreads, including lovely lemony lentils and pickled veggies. Then we sampled crocchette alle verdure ($10), chickpeas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and other veggies smooshed together into patties and lightly fried (and seasoned). They resemble naked veggie burgers, but unlike those often-sad concoctions, the vegetables that go into the crocchetti maintain their independent characters.
More intense were the melanzane ripiene ($10), thin slices of smoky eggplant topped with ground beef, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. The tang and structure of the eggplant saved the dish from just being a big ladle of sauce on the plate, but, oh, what sauce it was: sweet and cheesy and utterly filling.
The gamberoni parmigiano ($12) featured shrimp smothered with tomato sauce, Parmesan, and mozzarella, then baked to chewy perfection.
We ordered zuppa di cannellini e ditalini ($10) expecting, well, a soup; out came a heaping mound of white beans and potatoes nestled among small tubes of pasta. Very little of the chicken stock or tomatoes remained, because the carbs had sucked up all the juice during simmering. Imagine SpaghettiOs for adults.
The aragosta ripiena ($25) and capuzzelle ($20) both looked tempting, but we decided lobster stuffed with salmon or a halved sheep's head might be a bit much for a Sunday night. Instead we went with coniglio alla Nonna Rita ($22), rabbit stew served over polenta. Just to be clear: this is a recipe from Nonna Rosa's Nonna Rita. Mushrooms heightened the dish's woodsy feel, while a welcome blast of cinnamon cut down on its gaminess and added complexity to the sweetness created by the tomatoes. We could see Rosa nodding approvingly as we gnawed on the little bones. It's Italian food by way of the Dolomites, whose chilly temps and mountainous forests require soul-satisfying, heart-warming food.
Enoteca Maria can be loud. Joe acts as bartender, serving wines from all over Italy (bottles range from $24 to $180, glasses from $8 to $60), and as DJ, maniacally queuing up The Rolling Stones, Elvis, and, at one point, a bizarre comedy routine about space travel. The service can be scattered, though ultimately solicitous; every table in our vicinity got a free dish (we got homemade cookies, which barely survived the ferry back to Manhattan).
"No one leaves here hungry," our server told a couple who'd been waiting several minutes to order. She's right. With its satisfying and unpretentious regional Italian specialties, its off-the-usual-dating-map location and atmosphere, and the inherent romance of a night ferry ride through the harbor, Enoteca Maria is best for: a date whose expectations you want to upend.