“It’s all taxistas and all they serve is fast food,” Guillermo, the thirty-something cabbie, shakes his gelled head, “It’s not a place for you. There’s no way I’m taking you there. ”
“There” is Guillermo’s usual lunch spot: the gas station on the corner of Thames and Charcas in the Palermo Viejo neighborhood.
Although the prospect of eating in a man-filled, AM/PM-style mini market intrigues me on one level, it’s a bit daunting on another. Am I, Foreign Female, prepared to venture to a place I so obviously do not belong? The intrepid half of me utters a resounding ‘yes.’ The shrinking violet half whispers a tentative ‘maybe not.’
Like many taxistas before him, Guillermo is convinced that I should be taken to the likes of Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires’s fancy-pants restaurant headquarters) to have lunch; I have spent the first 15 blocks of our ride trying to convince him otherwise. Finally, after a series of prods and wheedles, he confesses to the gas station.
“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” the father of three sons says, braking hard for a red light on Avenida Santa Fe, “Isn’t there somewhere else I could take you?”
“Where else do you eat?” I ask him.
“Uy, I don’t know.”
Like his grandfather and father before him, Guillermo drives his cab 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. Eating well is not his first priority. Feeding his family is.
“How about pizza?” he says, eyeing me in the rear view mirror, “I know a good pizzeria across from Chacarita cemetery.”
“And you’ve been there?”
“OK, let’s go.”
His grip on the steering wheel relaxes. After a few quick turns, we are suddenly in Chacarita, a traditional middle class barrio whose claim to fame is its vast cemetery (Among other local luminaries, tango singing legend Carlos Gardel rests there, a lighted cigarette burning on his statue).
“There you go,” Guillermo skids to a stop in front of the train station a few blocks from the cemetery and points across the street to El Imperio, a corner pizzeria teeming with customers.
I thank him and step into a deafening intersection. Buses wheeze past and fart diesel fumes. Locals spill into and out of the train station, rushing past vendors hawking cell phone cases and flip-flops. A lottery ticket seller’s voice cuts through the pandemonium, shouting numbers to no one in particular.
I duck into El Imperio, where an armada of ceiling fans moves the smell of pizza around a dining room half the size of a soccer field. Dishes clatter. The conversations of old men, teenagers, families, and train station refugees collide. Several TVs broadcast the news in mute. Waiters in thin white dress shirts zoom between tables, their hands full.
Customers with no time to sit devour pizza and empanadas at chest-high stainless steel tables near the cash register. I choose a table against the wall, grabbing a leatherbound menu from the empty table next door, and discover that at some point in the not too distant past, El Imperio celebrated its 60th anniversary.
A bow-tied server is at my side in less than a minute, and I ask him what he recommends.
“The fugazetta (cheese and onion focaccia) is good, but really loaded with cheese. Then there’s the primavera, which has mozzerella, ham, red peppers and egg. But you can’t go wrong with the classic.”
The classic is a slice of mozzerella cheese pizza with a portion of fainá (a ‘tortilla’ made with garbanzo bean flour and olive oil that originated with the Genovese immigrant population). I go with it.
Another minute goes by, and my pizza (oozing melted cheese) and fainá (dense and flat and room temperature) arrive. The hot pizza, its spongy crust crispy on the bottom, with just a touch of sauce and a mountain of mozzarella, is unremarkable to me. However, I know this is the style of pizza many Argentines adore.
Not only does El Imperio do it justice, but they’ve also made sure it’s affordable. My pizza and fainá – a filling meal at less than two dollars – fly in the face of the inflation that’s plaguing the rest of the country (although my Coca-Cola costs more than my food).
While chaos converges at the intersection outside, I savor my slice of tradition on the cheap, praying that this neighborhood institution continues to thrive.
Avenida Corrientes 6981 (esquina Federico Lacroze) – Chacarita