When I’m flying blind in a new place (i.e. in the absence of research, guidebooks, or personal recommendations), I like to coast on the illusion that my instincts will guide me to a great place to eat.
Some of the cues are obvious. Crowded at peak hours is good. Crowded on an out-of-the-way street – or in a place without a sign – is even better. Small is often, but not always, beautiful. The presence of women in the kitchen – and/or the owner anywhere in the restaurant – augurs very well. As does a short menu with a dominant theme – or a menu that changes daily or with the seasons. The attendance of locals – or members of the ethnic group that invented the featured cuisine – is crucial.
I also like to think, after a few food pilgrimages on a few continents, that I know something about the harbingers of mediocre-to-bad food: never-ending menus that try to do it all (e.g. enchiladas, chop suey, and Indian curry under the same roof); vast, factory-like, fluorescent-lit dining rooms; overpriced establishments near tourist attractions. And perhaps the most perilous sign of all: restaurants with greeters who try to steer passersby inside (a good restaurant doesn’t need to convince people to come in).
I’m very pleased to report that much of this so-called know-how is being blown to bits by taxistas like Abel Aparicio.
Born in Montevideo (Uruguay), bald, olive-skinned, narrow-nosed Abel has lived and driven in Buenos Aires for the last thirty-four years. Every September, he takes a religious pilgrimage to Luján, a city known as the Capital of Faith that is home to the Virgin of Luján, Argentina’s patron saint.
Under the watchful eye of the Virgin Mary postcard he’d pasted on his windshield, Abel told me about the best places to find chivito (Uruguayan steak sandwiches)* – and attempted to take me to El Querandí, the site of one of the city’s best-known tourist tango shows that also serves a rather expensive steak.
“Actually,” I said, “I’d rather go to a place where you would eat.”
“What do you want then? Steak? Pasta?”
I told him pasta sounded great, knowing I was running out of imaginative ways to describe Argentine beef – and after he explained that the chivito places weren’t open at lunch-time.
“I know exactly where to take you,” he smiled.
We shot out of the Balvanera neighborhood and turned onto Avenida Entre Rios, which became Avenida Callao after we made a beeline past the majestic but run-down House of Congress. Beating a path through the Friday afternoon traffic, we headed down Avenida Corrientes toward downtown.
In a stroke of poetic justice, Abel screeched to a halt on Montevideo street.
“There you go,” he said, pointing to a 10-foot neon sign flanked by an equally imposing Coca-Cola banner.
“Pippo?” I asked.
“Pippo,” he answered, “Order the vermicelli – it’s fantastic. And cheap.”
I caught sight of still-life photos of steak and fried eggs pasted on the windows, fluorescent lights, linoleum, lacquer, and a cavernous dining room that seemed to span a third of a city block – and fought back my urge to stay in Abel’s cab.
Warmth and chaos enveloped me the moment I walked into Pippo. Grey-haired, white-jacketed waiters wove between tables of gesticulating men, most of whom looked to be lawyers on their lunch breaks and all of whom spoke Spanish.
An asador tended his crowded grill in the center of the hundred-plus seat dining room, shouting ‘Order up!’ every time he slung a plate on the counter. I mistook clouds of steam rising from so many bowls of pasta for cigarette smoke.
Inhaling the smell of warm pesto, I made my way to a two-top against the wall. A bespectacled waiter with a towel draped over his wrist instantly approached, brandishing a paper tablecloth, a basket of bread, oil, vinegar, and a place setting. He rushed away without a word and returned seconds later with a vinyl-bound menu embossed with a gold, pasta-filled fork.
“Since 1936,” the menu read. From the looks of things, Pippo had all the makings of an institution.
I skipped the steak section and immediately proceeded to the list of house-made pastas. Abel’s vermicelli was there, along with three kinds of lasagna, ravioli, sorrentinos, and canneloni. The options for sauce were dizzying: pesto, bechamel, olive oil, olive oil and garlic, four cheese, butter, bolognese, marinara, or Pippo-style tomato.
I spied on the surrounding tables to see what they’d ordered. Vermicelli was definitely de rigueur – although some had strayed to polenta and Genovese minestrone on this particularly cold day. A single, thirty-something man ate steak and drank Fanta while he read the El Clarín soccer section.
I closed the menu and looked around. My waiter, who was no more than 5-feet tall, zipped over in a flash.
“I’m going to have the vermicelli,” I told him, “But which sauce would you recommend?”
“Pippo’s tomato,” he said, “It’s like bolognese sauce, but the meat is a little milder.”
Like so many waiters in Buenos Aires, he memorized my order rather than writing it down. Not five minutes later, he returned with a half-bottle of Malbec–Syrah and a bowl of steaming pasta.
“That was so quick!” I exclaimed.
“That’s how we do it here.”
“How long have you worked here?” I asked him.
“Forty-two years. My whole life,” he said, “Do you want a spoon for your pasta?”
Before I could register my amazement, he removed a spoon from his pocket and hurried to a nearby table to take an order.
I dug into the mass of pasta before me, which was smothered in a red-brown meat sauce and sprinkled with a generous snowfall of parmigiano cheese. The pencil-thick noodles were cooked to a perfect al dente – so hot that the olive oil in the sauce soaked into them as I ate.
Vermicelli, sauce and cheese became one as I worked my way to the bottom of the bowl, and I moaned quietly after each bite.
I forgot about my wine – smooth and fruity, but robust enough to stand up to the beef in the rich sauce – until I was halfway done. I raised my glass to Abel – for introducing me to a restaurant I would have never chosen on my own, and for shattering my preconceptions about where to find great food.
By the time I finished, I felt as if I’d been massaged from the inside out. If my grandma were Italian, this is precisely the kind of comfort food she’d serve me.
My ecstasy was complete when the waiter cleared the table and brought the check. My lunch cost five dollars, including tip.
Next time – if I can resist the craving for vermicelli I know I’m going to have – I’ll try the polenta.
* Abel’s Chivito Recommendations:
Paseo del Campo – Avenida Independencia (y Jujuy)
La Chacra – Avenida Cordoba (y Suipacha)