I would add that a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in a taxicab. Especially in a Buenos Aires taxicab.
Especially in Mabel R.’s taxicab.
Beneath her androgynous costume (baggy sweatshirt, tattered jeans, and closely cropped hair), behind her hardened voice and her skepticism about two foreigners on a funky food quest, we discovered a savvy eater, a devoted grandmother, and a woman who took pride in being a taxista femenina.
“People prefer women drivers. We don’t complain like the men do, and we’re a lot calmer,” she said, “With taxi driving, you either love it or you hate it. There’s no in-between.”
According to Mabel, 5,000 of Buenos Aires’ approximately 40,000 taxi drivers are women. Despite their numbers, these femmes haven’t organized a union or a solidarity group of any kind. (Are women taxistas, like their male counterparts, too attached to their cab-driving independence to think about organizing? Or are female cabbies in Buenos Aires too preoccupied with their families’ survival to get involved in politics?).
Mabel certainly has a lot to think about besides girl taxi power. Between the 16-month-old great-granddaughter who “drives her crazy” and the two teenage granddaughters she’s raising, she’s still dealing with the death of her daughter in 2004.
By the time we arrived at the Spiagge di Napoli, the restaurant she’d recommended, I wondered how much of Mabel’s tough exterior had its roots in the loss of her child – and how much of it was a survival strategy for a woman doing a traditionally male job.
There was nothing ambiguous, however, about Mabel’s generosity of spirit. After we paid the fare, she turned off the meter, parked her cab, went into the restaurant, introduced us to the owner, told us to order rabas (fried calamari) and made sure we were seated at a good corner table before she drove away.
If Mabel’s charms were understated, Spiagge di Napoli’s were on full display. Prosciutti and salami dangled from the ceiling. Four generations of family pictures crowded the walls. The dining room buzzed with the happy conversation of the well-fed. The kitchen teased us with whiffs of garlic sautéing in olive oil, meatballs browning, marinara simmering. A sign that read ‘Salon para Familias’ hung at the center of it all.
“Pastas are our specialty,” our server told us, “They’re all house-made.”
We kicked off our feast with Mabel’s rabas, which were fried to perfection in a crispy batter, although some pieces of calamari were chewier than others.
Rabas consumed, we got down to business with sorrentinos (round pillows of pasta stuffed with mozzarella and fresh basil) with puttanesca sauce and fresh fusilli with scarparo (tomato, pesto, ham and cream) sauce.
After 83 years in the neighborhood, it’s no surprise that the cooks at Spiagge di Napoli know how to knock it out of the park. Our pasta was al dente, and the big flavors in our sauces had been handled with care. (Still, my co-adventurer and I agreed that the fusilli would’ve tasted better with the anchovy-olive-tomato puttanesca – and that the basil in the sorrentinos would’ve been even more impressive had we paired it with the pesto-based scarparo sauce).
The Balcarce we ordered for dessert – with layers of whipped cream, meringue, dulce de leche, vanilla cake, powdered sugar and caramelized peanuts – wowed us nearly as much as the pasta. Not as mind-blowing as the Balcarce you find in the town of the same name in the province, but easily the best version I’ve tasted in Buenos Aires.
The ecstasy didn’t end there. Just as we were preparing to waddle away from our three hour lunch (which totaled 85 pesos – about $23US – including wine, water and coffee), our server offered us limoncello on the house.
So we lingered a little longer at Spiagge di Napoli, sipping our digestivo, basking in the nourishment of body and spirit, as taken with the restaurant as we were with the woman who’d brought us there.
Photo credit: Flavia Ramos