Enoteca Maria is about two blocks from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. That means you barely have to come ashore to eat there. It’s a tiny wine bar in the St. George neighborhood, unassuming from the outside, and Carrera marble-enrobed inside. The coolest thing about Enoteca Maria, however, is who’s cooking there. No executive chef hides in the kitchen, torturing line cooks and dishwashers – the restaurant has a revolving cadre of nonnas, Italian grandmothers, who cook the dishes of the village in Italy from whence they came. So while on Wednesday, you may have Luisa from Piacenza serving up the soup her nonna made for her as a child, by Saturday, Teresa from Sicily will be wowing you with her prosciutto-laden lasagna. To guild the delicious lily even more, the owner, Joe, grows many of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant right in his own garden. So we’re talking hyper-local, authentic Italian food, graced by a spectacular wine list. This place is totally worth a quick ferry ride, and our meal was so good, I didn’t even mind the cash-only policy.
They start you out with a complimentary plate of focaccia and three little dishes containing tomato and onion bruschetta, roasted, earthy eggplant, and syrupy sweet roasted peppers dressed with really, really good olive oil. The kind of olive oil that makes you question your oil game. The kind that makes you order it online from Zingermans or DiBruno Bros, because once you’ve tasted it, you know the supermarket stuff is inferior. Yeah – it’s that tasty.
We ordered meatballs as an appetizer, even though Livi, our Miss TI, is a vegetarian. We’re cruel like that. Dad called them excellent, Mom intends to order them as her entrée next time, Joelle scarfed hers down, and I loved how bright and acidic the tomato sauce on them started on the tongue. The meat was ground very finely, and I could detect no filler, which produced an intensely meaty, savory meatball. There may be breadcrumbs or cheese or eggs in them, but none of that is interfering with the juicy, robust meat of these balls.
Our other appy was the imported burratta, which came with the hefty price tag of $25 for one ball of cheese. Get over the price and save your sheckles, because you’re gonna want this. I was shocked they didn’t make it in house, it was so fresh. It was clean, squeaky-fresh, other worldly in its interior creaminess and exterior bounce. Even the grape tomatoes surrounding it were fresh and flavorful, which is unheard of in March. Livi scooped up a morsel onto a piece of bread and proclaimed that it was the, “best possible way to cheat on a pageant diet.” High praise, indeed, and don't worry, Livi is lovely and quite fit. She can withstand a few bites of full-fat, cream laden mozzarella goodness. Anyway, I’m fairly certain that this dish is what they hand you right after St. Peter has given you the nod through the pearly gates. Tiny little cherubs fly over with a plate of this and sing, “Welcome to Heaven. Try our burratta!”
Someone was ordering the braciole at our table – either me or Dad; I decreed it. It ended up being me, and I found this iteration of the classic rolled, braised beef to be unique and yummy. It was stuffed with green beans! The meat was fall-apart tender, extremely thinly rendered, and the pool of tomato sauce around it was the same as what came with the meatballs, but in this case enriched with the hearty, savory juices of the beef.
Dad ordered the sausage rigatoni, which he found really spicy, but I utterly loved. The riggies were bathed in a very light tomato sauce, thinned out with more of that fabulous EVOO, and all the heat was packed into the sausage. The heat would hit you slowly, so that your first bite was pretty mild, but by bite three, you were reaching for the bread basket. The sauce was so unctuous, so rich, you needed bread anyway to sop it all up. So let go and let spice with his one - embrace it.
Livi and Mom got the four cheese risotto, which is based in vegetable broth and reinforced with gorgonzola, fontina, mozzarella, and parmigiano cheeses. Freshly ground nutmeg was sprinkled over the top as a garnish, which is a totally ninja move my Nonna Christina, from Bergamo, Milano. The depths of the cheese were layered, so that you tasted different flavors as each bite moved on your palate, and the little crisp-tender bits of minced onion throughout were like sweet treats to interrupt all the richness. Risotto is basically rich man's Mac and cheese, and this was a particularly comforting rendition.
Joelle is our teen titleholder, and Mom and Dad were a bit concerned that she wouldn’t find anything she liked on this very adult, very foreign menu. But lo and behold, Maria’s has a pizza! The authentic margherita pie had a thin crust that wasn’t overly crisp – plenty of chew left in it to make this small pie into a meal. It tasted like a chewy, thickened saltine cracker, and the goopy cheese mellowed out that shockingly fresh tomato sauce. I loved all the fresh basil on it, but that flavor was a little robust for our Little One, who picked those bits off, and raved about her meal.
Though we were stuffed to the gills at this point, grandma knows best, and she wanted us to order dessert. A plate of Italian cookies appeased Mom, Joelle and Dad, and please understand, these were not the run-of-the-mill cookies your third generation Italian friends pass around at Christmas. They were tender but not crumbly, nor too sweet, studded with almonds, spread with Nutella, and dusted with powdered sugar.
I ordered the chocolate sponge cake with orange ricotta, and all I could think through the haze of each bliss-filled bite was: more desserts should have cheese in them. I’m not usually one for fruit and chocolate together, but the orange in this was very subtle. It was more like a chocolate cannoli made into a cake, again not too sweet, but creamy and light.
Livi had her last hurrah before Miss New York’s punishing swimsuit competition courtesy of the berries topped with cream. Those strawberries and blueberries were like jewels, glistening in their macerated juices, and the whipped cream on top was so rich, it must have been made by those burratta cherubs fluttering about up in Heaven.
It was a no brainer to award Enoteca Maria a 10 on the BHS scale. While our waitress wasn’t the most attentive girl on the block, the place is so tiny, we were never at a loss, service-wise. We even received attention from, and heaped praise upon, the owner, who was never more than eight feet from us the entire meal. Enoteca Maria is just two doors down from the theater in which Miss New York is held, and I’m so grateful, because I would like to taste all the nonnas’ specialties and eat here about five more times. Yes, it’s pricey, yes, you need a reservation, and YES, it’s worth the ferry ride from Manhattan. If this place catches on, Brooklyn may have a rival for coolest outer borough! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!
PS: our girls are competing at Miss New York in just a couple weeks, so send your luck and love their way!
PPS: I would be remiss in failing to wish a Happy Birthday week to the woman without whom I might fall off the face of the Earth. The fabulous, funny, cookie-baking, good-time-making countess of weather reports, the bride to be, and my best friend Big Hungry Melinda! Have a wonderful birthday, my love!