The owners of Nonna Elena in East Sandwich are turning Cape Cod kitchens into slices of heaven
A great idea can have the power to take on a life of its own, or in the case of Lu Matrascia and her wife, Joanne Benyo, a great idea can transform lives—three, in fact.
One fateful evening in 2013 when Matrascia and Carlo Zarri—a friend who is a hotel and restaurant atelier and visits the couple regularly from his home in Italy—were finishing a delicious truffle dinner, an idea became a plan, and that plan became a way of life. Maybe it was the mystical magic of the truffles, but the evening became a pivotal moment in each of their lives. As Matrascia tells it, “Carlo lamented the state of the Italian economy and said he wanted to help his friends back home. He said, ‘I want to start to export Italian goods.’ I said, ‘If you want to export, I want to import.’” And as they say in Italian, ecco fatto—it’s done!
Once Carlo, Lu and Joanne decided on the initial products to introduce to an American market, CLJ Imports was born. Lu and Joanne became regulars at the local farmers markets across the Mid Cape, and their high-quality olive oil, pastas, cheeses and other staples of Italian cuisine were continually met with an enthusiastic following. It didn’t take long to realize a more formal operation was needed to meet the increasing demand of items the trio had curated for the Cape Cod market. “Our loyal customers would continually ask us, ‘Where is your store?’” Matrascia recalls. “I would tell them we didn’t have a store. And they would tell us that they wanted to buy from us during the week, not just weekends.”
Eventually in 2014, Matrascia and Benyo rented a small space in the village of Yarmouth Port. “It was a teeny shop,” she says. “If you could find it, if you could find parking, if you could make your way down a little garden path to the front door, we proved that people would come and buy things.”
The fall of 2015 saw the opening of their current retail location, Nonna Elena on Route 6A in East Sandwich. This new location boasts a cozy working fireplace, shelves stocked with the spoils of Italian purveyors, and gleaming refrigerated cases bursting with cheeses, salumi and sausages. A back room houses freezers full of cannoli, gelati and fresh pasta. The namesake of the store, whose portrait graces the exterior of the building as well as labels of the store-branded items, was Carlo’s grandmother. “Carlo lost his grandmother a few years back, but her sister still lives in their little village,” Matrascia says. “Whenever I send anything over with her portrait on the label, or any press we get, she celebrates the success of her deceased sister with the entire village.”
Matrascia says that the store has had a profound effect on the growing list of customers who have discovered it once and now make it a regular stop. “It has become a place where ‘you can be Italian,’” she says. “People continually tell me that they can’t be Italian on the Cape. You know how it feels when you go to Hanover Street in Boston’s North End—you are transported. That is what happens when you come here.” By all indications, she may be on to something. A visit to the store not only fills the bill for pantries and plates across the Cape, but something about the lingering conversations, the recollections of generations of ancestors and their Italian roots, fills the souls of those who stop by.
Matrascia and Benyo have shared their love of Italy in more ways than just recommending the authentic delicacies they offer at Nonna Elena; they provide a truly immersive experience with local cooking classes. On a warm October evening, resplendent with the feel of an autumn harvest, some fortunate members of the Cape Cod Life staff gathered in the couple’s warm and inviting marsh-front home in Yarmouth Port for one of Matrascia’s classes. Matrascia openly declares that she is the cook, while Benyo willingly functions as sous chef and chief cleanup crew. Their kitchen, the impressive product of a thoughtful remodel a few years earlier, is spacious and accommodating for groups as large as eight. Seated at a long bar counter, hungry participants peer over the prep and cook area, allowing close examination of every nuance Matrascia deftly employs to transport her students to the heavenly kitchens of Venezia, Toscana and Piemonte. Each recipe is accompanied by anecdotes of travel, or local lore and legends of villages from another time and place.
A natural extension of this immersion into Italian culture and cuisine began a few years ago when Matrascia and Benyo started offering tours to friends, customers and groups to Italy. As Matrascia says with a wink, “I go to Italy twice a year, whether I need to or not, so why not take a few friends?” The itinerary is crafted with thought, love and a splash of adventure for each group. Sometimes the region visited is determined by the ancestral roots someone wants to explore, sometimes it is just the not-to-miss destinations of the popular country. But always, it is a trip that is carefully planned to provide an insider’s experience.
Like a precious and delicious cipollina, the Italian word for onion, the future for Matrascia and Benyo appears to have many more layers. Matrascia is currently working on a Nonna Elena cookbook, due out by the end of 2018. No doubt it will encourage and enable anyone to “be Italian,” even on Cape Cod.