Founded by Genoese immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, Villa Devoto is supposedly home to some of BA’s best pizza…At least this is what a foodie at Parilla Peña told me during my first taxi adventure. Since then, I’ve been curious to make the pilgrimage to Devoto to find out for myself.
Today I made a second attempt to infiltrate Villa Devoto, an outlying neighborhood near the northern end of BA’s city limits. (The day of my first attempt, I got lost and ended up eating steak at Los Chanchitos in Caballito.).
To avoid spending a crazy amount of pesos on a long cab ride – and in the interest of finding a taxista who knew the neighborhood – the plan was to take a bus to Villa Devoto and get off somewhere near the train station. From there I hoped to run into a cabbie from the barrio who could lead me to a good pizzeria.
After spending half an hour confusing myself with the insanely detailed Guia T, I memorized my bus route and boarded the #110 on Avenida Las Heras. The bus chugged through Recoleta, Palermo, and Caballito and soon ventured into neighborhoods I could not name.
As we traveled further and further from the city center, traffic thinned, street signs disappeared, churches popped up more frequently, and I spotted fewer and fewer taxis.
Determined to stay oriented, I kept my Guia T open and tried to map our route as we inched closer to Villa Devoto. More people were getting off the bus than getting on, and soon I was the only one left. I was getting hungrier by the second.
Finally, unable to sit any longer, I jumped off the bus and walked toward Devoto. At midday in this neighborhood, everything was closed. Smells of chicken soup, sauteing onions, frying fish, and roasting beef assaulted me from all directions. There wasn’t a street sign, a restaurant or a taxi in sight. My hunger went from nagging to possessing me.
Desperate, I searched for a busier street. Block after block yielded houses and emptiness. The entire barrio was in the middle of an afternoon nap – and it wasn’t about to interrupt its siesta for a disoriented norteamericana.
Starving, cold and lost, I was about to get back on the #110 and return to familiar territory when…a taxista pulled around the corner and drove toward my waving hands. His light was on!
Slumped low in his seat, bundled up in a cardigan and a threadbare v-neck vest, Osvaldo turned and flashed a curious smile at me when I asked him to take me to a good place to eat.
Running a hand through his silver hair, he brainstormed out loud: “I could take you where I usually go, but they probably only have milanesas left by now…There are a couple of places on Constituyentes where they make good homemade-type food. What would you like to do?”
“Home-style food sounds perfect,” I told him.
“Bueno,” he said, “Constituyentes it is.”
I sat back and sighed with gratitude, but my relief went beyond the imminence of lunch. There was a sweetness about this man – about the saints and ribbons that hung from the rear view mirror, about the baby photos taped to the visor – that was incredibly soothing.
Osvaldo reminded me of the ancient milongueros my tango teacher urged me to dance with, “You never know whether this tango could be their last,” she always told me.
For some reason (Was it the fatigue in his spine? The exhaustion in his voice? The aura of serenity that suggested he already had one foot in another realm?), I sensed that this cab ride might be one of Osvaldo’s last.
“I live there,” he said, pointing to a block of pastel-colored duplexes before turning onto Avenida Constituyentes, “You aren’t from the neighborhood, are you?”
We spent the rest of the ride discussing the pros and cons of living in the U.S. versus Argentina.
“Your country is very advanced, but you’re losing your humanity,” he said, “Unfortunately, Argentina is following in your footsteps.”
A few blocks later, he coasted to the curb and said, “Why don’t you check and see if this place is still open? They make pretty good food. I’ll wait for you.”
I got out of the cab and peaked into the window of a dingy corner diner. Men at the tables inside stared back at me over empty plates.
I returned to the cab to pay Osvaldo.
“Would you like to join me for lunch?”
“No, querida, thank you. I’ve already eaten. But thank you just the same. You enjoy your lunch. And good luck.”
“Likewise,” I told him, wishing that this dear old man could go home and take a siesta.
Unwavering stares greeted me when I entered Restaurante Anto Ara at the end of the lunch rush. Every single customer in the room followed my movements as I chose a table near the window and studied the grim surroundings: tablecloths pocked with cigarette burns, vinyl chairs ripped and vomiting their stuffing, ceiling fans blackened with soot, olive green paint peeling off the walls, and the TV news chronicling robbery and murder at high volume.
The teenage waitress managed to keep her back to me as she cleared tables, joked with her customers, and roused the cooks. Finally, I waved her down, and she brought me a menu.
“We’re out of today’s special,” she told me as she walked away.
I flipped through the menu, being careful not to split the ripped binding as I scanned a list of sandwiches, steaks, and pastas typical of most BA restaurants. Nothing inspired me. I had no idea what might be good to eat.
I turned toward the kitchen. Above the pass-through window, a plaque read, “House Recipe: Smiles, Kisses and Lots of Love.”
Two women – a chef in her thirties wearing fatigues and a teenager sporting pigtails – were busy picking herbs and running between pots on the stove. Maybe there was a chance of some decent home-style cooking after all.
I closed the menu and the waitress edged over, narrowing her eyes at me. I asked her what she recommended.
“Our pastas are good – especially the chicken and vegetable ravioli,” she said, “You could get a pasta with a salsa mixta.”
I took her suggestion and ordered a 1/4 liter of wine, which she brought over in a tin pitcher along with a basket of stale bread.
I munched on a roll and sipped the transparent wine, which went down as easily as punch. Tipsy, I watched customer after customer get up and leave. Every time someone walked out the door, the chef called out to him by name, told him to take care and have a good weekend. I assumed that these were men who didn’t have someone to cook for them at home – and that they were all from the neighborhood.
I was the last one in the restaurant when the waitress brought my ravioli, drizzled with cream and drowning in a red sauce studded with chunks of beef. Chicken ravioli and beef sauce? Somehow the dish worked – although I admit that my ravenousness may have had something to do with it.
Even so, I like to think I would appreciate that ravioli in any state – delicate as a crepe and generously stuffed with herbs, cheese and chicken. Without question some of the best fresh pasta I’ve ever had.
Nevertheless, the sauce could have done without the beef – much of which was tough and chewy. But the combination of sauteed onions, red peppers, tomatoes and cream packed a genuinely satisfying punch. I sopped up every bite, guzzled the last of my wine, and all was right with the world.
Were the ravioli themselves worth a trip to the styx? Probably not. But if you want to glimpse a softer side of Buenos Aires – one that moves at an easy pace and knows a bit about silence, one that honors the siesta, one that has a clear sense of who is and who isn’t from the neighborhood, and one that knows how to nourish with the flavors of home – then I’d encourage you to make the trek to a barrio where a bus line ends…and sample the goods at a corner diner.
Restaurante Anto Ara
Constituyentes 4002 (esquina Nueva York)
Villa Pueyrredon – Cuidad de Buenos Aires
Hours: Lunch & Dinner Mon-Sat. – Lunch/live soccer on Sundays ’til 20:30.