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    Eat & Swig

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    Saturday afternoon in July in the middle of Oxmoor Center. A swirl of shoppers, kids riding motorized animals…and a group of old Italian women. Grandmothers. Nonnas. The women were there for a competition put on by Grassa Gramma Italian Kitchen, a restaurant scheduled to open in late summer in Holiday Manor. Kevin Grangier, owner of Grassa Gramma (and Le Moo and the Village Anchor), says his new restaurant will feel like an Italian piazza, with a 20-foot bronze fountain and a bakery on the second floor. The competition at the mall was to find the perfect spokes-ma, who’d be the face of Grassa Gramma and greet people entering the restaurant.

    Thirty nonnas applied, 13 auditioned. When Maria Maresca Poff showed up for the casting call, some family by her side, she looked at her competitors, thinking any of them could take the cake. There was the woman whose maiden name was “Perfecto”; the 100-percent Sicilian, New York-raised woman who brought ceramic dishes layered with caprese salad and 100-day-cured prosciutto; the storyteller with the red apron reading, “I don’t need a recipe, I’m Italian”; the tiny one, nicknamed “Mama Mia,” whose voice was as crackly as a pepper grinder.

    And Poff, the proud Neapolitan, with four children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She wore her hair low, in a clip, as she had done the day before on the Great Day Live set with Grangier and several other grandmas. The newscaster asked, “Did you ever think you’d be a star for being exactly who you are?” and Poff said, “I’m a star to my children, my grandchildren.” She showed off the recipe book with her mother’s and grandmother’s classics, while others had framed Ellis Island papers and a little statue of Pulcinella, the hungry, singing mascot of Naples with his horn that brings good luck.

    For the audition, Poff brought gateau, a “cake” of potatoes, mozzarella, salami, milk, eggs, breadcrumbs and parsley. She wanted to impress the judges — Grangier, design consultant Lesa Buckler and executive chef Robert Rice — with something she’s never seen in Louisville. At one point during her interview at the mall, Rice said, “We should put that on the menu.” The DJ blared Jerry Vale. A couple weeks later, the judges picked Poff.

    As a child in Naples, Poff never much cooked with her mother, the food extraordinaire, who’d spoil the kids with fish and soup during the week, pasta with ragù and meatballs on Sundays. It wasn’t until Poff moved to the United States in 1960 with her husband — the blond-haired, blue-eyed Navy man who’d found his way to her mother’s kitchen in a search for authentic Italian food — that she started cooking herself, repeating her mother’s tastes that she couldn’t find here. “I don’t go to Italian restaurants as a principle, because I’m always disappointed,” Poff says.

    When she returns to Naples, yearly, her diet is eggplants and fish. How she loves the sea. The air clean, the water serene. The Tyrrhenian winds hugging her, wrapping her in the breeze. To be the Grassa Gramma Nonna is to be ever more connected to that seaside heritage.

    “I am a happy nonna,” she says.

    This originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine as the Shift, under the headline "Grandmother for Hire." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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