BY Molly Congdon
CLIFTON PARK— As soon as you step into Nonna Maria’s Italian Kitchen, you are greeted by delectable smells, the smiles of customers and an open kitchen where you can watch Chef Gerardo Cunsolo as he marinates, sautés and constructs his concoctions.
Cunsolo spent his childhood in a small village in Calabria, Italy, located in the toe of the Italian Peninsula. His mother, Maria, ran the vegetable farm while his father, Marino, worked in Germany doing construction to rebuild after World War II.
Cunsolo was the youngest of six children, and his duties were to support his mom running the farm and make sure all of the animals got fed.
To this day, his greatest influence is his mother. “Being the youngest I was always hanging out with my mother all the time,” Cunsolo said. “My mom always cooked all these beautiful dinners since I was a little kid. The first thing I made with her was homemade meatballs.”
It comes as no surprise that he named his latest restaurant after her.
He came to the United States at 15 in 1973, and found a recession underway. “I was forced to go make pizzas to help out with money,” Cunsolo recalled.
Then after a couple of years he was employed at Lombardo’s Restaurant in Albany. He spent the next five years refining his knowledge of cooking, until 1981, when a man named Fred Grimaldi walked through the doors. After eating he said to Cunsolo:
“Young man, did you cook my clam sauce?”
“Why, was it bad?” Cunsolo replied.
“No, it was delicious, how would you like to be my chef?”
In a state of shock, Cunsolo said, “Are you kidding?”
He was not. And so, Cunsolo got his first chef job at age 21, running Grimaldi’s Restaurant on Central Avenue in Colonie. “I made $450 a week because chef jobs at that time were so rare,” Cunsolo said. “Especially to find someone with Italian background to do homemade Italian cooking.”
‘I’m going to marry this guy’
While helping his cousin start a pizzeria on Lark Street, he met the love of his life.
They had a real meet cute. Her parents owned the flower shop across the street from his cousin’s pizza joint.
“We saw each other, waved and said hi,” Michele Cunsolo said. “Then one day I ordered a tossed salad and he cut the tomato into a rose, like he carved all the little edges of a rose, and I said to my sister, ‘That’s it, I’m going to marry this guy.’ ” And she did.
In 1987 he went back to Italy and traveled throughout Europe for a couple of years doing various apprenticeships. Then in 1989, Cunsolo and his wife went to California and Cunsolo did a stint at Peppino’s in Orange County. This is where he polished and perfected his seafood techniques.
‘It just kind of happened’
Nonna Maria’s had its grand opening Jan. 4. “We had a restaurant in Guilderland, Chefs Take Out, for 10 years and we sold that two years ago,” Michele Cunsolo said. “My husband was trying to find a smaller-scale opportunity, and our daughter attends dance classes up here in Clifton Park. We saw this little place, saw it was for sale and made the purchase. It just kind of happened.”
The space previously had been the home of another Italian restaurant, Parma Italia.
Nonna Maria’s is a true family business. The Cunsolos’ three daughters — Daniela, 23, Marisa, 19, and Giana, 15 — all help out on a regular basis. Michele Cunsolo, who works full-time as a registered nurse for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, comes to watch the front and direct the dining room.
“I think the greatest thing is that my husband has the opportunity to carry on all of his traditions of authentic food,” she said. “You can see how much love he has for making these dishes, and then being able to share them with his customers and then see how much they love it is amazing.”
People can peer into the kitchen to watch his movements and witness each step of the cooking process. When a family orders clams, it is Chef Cunsolo who brings a sauté pan full of clams to serve them right at the table.
“When you put a meal together it’s not about how it looks,” Cunsolo said. “It’s about the taste.”
His wife’s favorite is his eggplant Parmesan. “It’s so thin and not with heavy bread crumbs but with a light egg wash,” she explained. “It’s like butter when you cut into it.”
Everything is made fresh. ““He makes the bread every day, the sauces … everything is from scratch and made to order,” Michele Cunsolo said. “If someone is ordering chicken Marsala, he makes that Marsala sauce individual for that order. That’s what’s really nice about his food, he can personalize it to however people want it.”
Nonna Maria’s separates itself from other establishments in the area because it is basically a one-man show. “I’m the chef, the cleaner, the cook. . . . My prep time begins at 9 a.m. every morning; I make the bread, the sauce, filet the meat and fish and get ready for dinnertime,” Cunsolo said. “I’m overseeing the whole operation and that’s why I think my place is different — I put my heart in it.”