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Road Eats: Enoteca Maria

We tend not to think of New York as a minor league baseball town. Not so long as there as there are two Major League teams in the metro area. Not so long as the burning desire to flee Small Town (or even medium town) America, is the justification so many New Yorkers offer when asked why they exiled to the asphalt jungle. Hit Bull, Win Steak? That might work in the backwaters. Here, the locals are more likely to go to Peter Luger, thanks.

Yet the truth is this: plenty of New Yorkers avail themselves to the charms of the bush leagues. There are easily a half dozen professional baseball teams scattered throughout the area -- most of them easily accessible with public transportation, all of them offering decidedly cheaper tickets than the Yankees or Mets. Consider, for instance, the Staten Island Yankees. The team plays in a gem of a ballpark a short walk from the ferry terminal, a long foul ball off the Hudson River. With the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline in the background, fans pay less for a seat than they'd pay for a beer at Yankee Stadium. The baseball is high quality and it comes with the typical league trappings that straddle the baseline between endearing and goofy. There are worse ways to spend a summer evening. All just a few miles from Midtown.

The crowds at Richmond County Bank Ballpark suggest that the secret is out, this is a local treasure no longer hidden. So here's another one. Before the game, do yourself a favor and grab dinner at Enoteca Maria, a few blocks up the hill from the ballpark on Hyatt Avenue.

Not unlike every minor league player, the joint has a hell of a backstory. Several years ago Joe Scravella, a Brooklyn transplant who works for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, lost his mother and his sister. He missed them desperately. He also missed their Italian cooking. He briefly considered moving to Italy. Then another inspiration struck. In 2007, he opened a restaurant. And instead of hiring a head chef, he put an ad in the local Italian weekly, and recruited grandmothers from the mothercountry to prepare their favorite dishes one night a week. Soon he had a staff of grandmothers or nonnas -- a nine-woman rotation, as it were -- each representing a different region of Italy and thus a different cuisine.

In baseball, attempts to challenge conventional wisdom don't always work out so well. Ask anyone whose Little League coach had the stroke of genius to play two outfielders and five infielders. Ask Oakland A's fans about the time in the early '90s that Tony LaRussa established three-man pitching "units" whereby each Oakland starter would take the mound every third day but throw only 50 pitches. The kitchen, though, tends to be more rewarding of risk-taking and innovation. And Scaravella's unusual alignment has paid off to dazzling effect.

On a recent Saturday night, before Staten Island played the Brooklyn Cyclones, Mrs. Road Eats and I snagged a reservation at Maria's. Adelena, a right-hander from Napoli, took her turn in the rotation. Meanwhile another nonna worked in a separate kitchen downstairs, preparing the "permanent" options on the menu. The fare on the regular menu runs from the standard to the exotic. You can order gnocci and pasta arrabiata. You can also order (as we did) zucchini flowers stuffed with blueberries and strawberries, and (as we did not) Le Palle di Joe, lambs testicles in vinegar. We also ordered a pear-and-gorgonzola salad (sensational) and a grilled artichoke (a bit messy).

You're almost duty-bound, though, to try at least one of the featured nonnas' featured selections. After some indecision, we settled on papardelle with fried eggplant and meat sauce. The pasta was just right. The eggplant was fried so lightly there was no guilt. The meat sauce was a perfect accompaniment. There were enough flavors and small grandmotherly touches (anise, some chopped egg) to make it thoroughly unique. It was, in a word, spectacular. And, it should go without saying, the portion size verged on a comical.

The authentic Italian menu is complemented by an authentic Italian wine list so lengthy it's called a "wine library." We made a rookie mistake of ordering drinks undaringly and sharing a small bottle of chianti with fruit -- a glorified sangria. But a friend in Manhattan knew all about Maria's without realizing the unique rotation of chefs. He simply knew the place based on its reputation for quirky wines, most of them running about $30 a bottle.

While there wasn't a vacant table this Saturday night, Maria's was still undeniably charming, a small, cozy space, all wood and marble. Were it not for the Fiona Apple and Radiohead playing on the stereo, it would be easy to play time traveler and envisione yourself transported to the Old Country. While so many Manhattan restaurants are eager to turn their tables and rush you out after your last bite of $15 dessert, the pace as Maria's is unhurried. There's even a paragraph on the menu encouraging guests to linger. When he's making change for patrons so they can feed their parking meters, Joe will invariably stop by the table to chat, the proud proprietor who knows he's onto a good thing. He will also check on the featured nonna occasionally. Recalling a conference on the mound, the manager expresses support, makes sure she's okay and then leaves her alone.

The great irony of minor league baseball -- maybe a source of the romance -- is this: for all the down-home, community vibes, the employees don't really want to be there. None of them. The players, the coaches, the marketing director, the radio guy ... they all have greater aspirations. They're happy to help the ball club. They play 'em one day at a time. They just want to give it their best shot. But in a perfect world, they're just passing through Charleston or Tacoma or wherever. Those Staten Island Yankees? Right team, wrong borough. They all want to be in the Bronx.

In the case of Maria's, it's the opposite. There's no ambition for bright lights and stardom. Joe is not looking to franchise the idea. Far as the nonnas are concerned, this is the big-time. Everyone's happy where they are. Not least, the lucky fans seated at the tables.

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