What's behind Buenos Aires' unique Italian food culture?

In Buenos Aires, the cuisine owes as much to the city’s Italian immigrants as it does to an urge to pile up ingredients with gleeful abandon. Expect everything from super-stuffed pizzas to egg-topped escalopes, all with a distinctly local twist.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020,
By Ella Buchan
Photographs By Tamara Goldenberg
A puertas cerradas (closed door) communal dining experience at the home of Paola Salvador.

A puertas cerradas (closed door) communal dining experience at the home of Paola Salvador.

Photograph by Tamara Goldenberg

Childlike, immature — perhaps a touch unsophisticated at times. That’s cookbook author Pietro Sorba’s surprising verdict on the nature of the Argentinian palate. “It’s like a child’s,” he explains. “Everything is much sweeter, less refined. We love the sweet and don’t like spice.”

As Exhibit A, Pietro cites dulce de leche, the thick milk caramel adored by Porteños — as people from this port city are known — who devour it in gelato, sandwiched in biscuits (as alfajores) and by the spoonful, straight from the jar. He then sweeps a bear-like hand over the table, which is crammed with dishes; some smothered in sauce and cheese, some topped with fried eggs or piled high with chips. Although it’s not immediately apparent, all these dishes, in some way or other, draw upon the city’s Italian heritage.

Pietro and I are lunching in Los Galgos, a classic example of a Buenos Aires bodegón — a cantina-style restaurant where Spanish and Italian culinary influences fuse in inimitable Porteño fashion. Pietro writes honestly about the city’s cuisine, and while his words are cushioned by affection and respect, his point resonates. The plates before us seem defined by, if anything, their randomness, by the apparently willy-nilly additions of extra cheese, tomato, sauce or chocolate. And he’s right, it’s a style of food a child (albeit a talented one) might create if they were let loose in a kitchen with an Italian cookbook and a full store cupboard.

But it’s also, as Pietro agrees, delicious — joyful, even. And, once you start poking about in the sauce and digging through the myriad toppings, the classic Italian roots of these dishes are increasingly tangible.

“Porteños talk Spanish, move like Italians and believe they’re French,” local tour guide Maria Belen tells me later (the French part, she explains, refers to a certain Gallic swagger). I meet her in La Boca, home to the port where waves of immigrants — mostly Spanish and Italian, fleeing poverty — started arriving in around 1830, a trend that continued for over a century. Today, more than half of Argentina’s population has Italian heritage.

A colourful street in Buenos Aires' La Boca neighbourhood, where waves of Spanish and Italian immigrants started arriving in around 1830. 

Photograph by AWL Images

We stroll down Calle Caminito, an open-air street museum situated in a traditional La Boca alleyway. Both Caminito and its surrounding streets are a riot of colourful tenement houses, many with makeshift extensions consisting of sheet metal, wooden boards and corrugated zinc, all brightened with paint and fileteado, a swishy, decorative lettering that originated in Italy. “It’s decoration for people who don’t have money,” says Maria.

The city’s equally patchwork cuisine was born in these houses, which are known as conventillos. Immigrants rented rooms and shared courtyards and kitchens with other families. Cooking became communal, recipes were tweaked, substitutions were made and, over time, a new cuisine was born.

Home cooks from Puglia, Genoa and Sicily began to use more cheese and meat in their recipes, because they were more readily available. Lacking high-quality flour to make the best pasta and pizza, they compensated with extra sauce and threw in more ingredients and herbs.

For Maria, the Italian influence is clear in the behaviour and mannerisms of the people: the way they greet each other, gather and talk with their hands. “We’re always calling friends, asking ‘what are you doing?’ and saying ‘come for a cocktail’,” she says. “It feels like such an Argentinian way of life, but the origins are Italian.”

I see this as I wander around nearby San Telmo, a bohemian neighbourhood whose streets and market are filled with people drinking coffee and nibbling alfajores cookies. People gravitate to each other, whether they’re engaged in animated conversation over aperitivos or bellowing greetings from afar.

Even asado — that most Argentinian tradition of gathering, often on Sundays, over endless amounts of barbecued meat — has something Italian about it. And, in fact, it’s common to have similar feasts revolving around pasta, where family or friends spend an entire day grazing.

Bicycles in Buenos Aires, in front of an orange neon sign.

Photograph by Getty Images

Back at Los Galgos, Pietro and I have been nibbling away for more than an hour and have barely made a dent. On the table in front of me there’s milanesa, widely considered the signature Italian-influenced Porteño dish: breaded veal escalopes, generously topped with fried eggs, tomatoes, ham and mozzarella. “Every family has their own recipe,” says Pietro, breaking the yolks with his fork to sauce the dish. “We eat it with mashed potatoes or chips.”

Then there’s fritto misto; back in Italy, this dish of lightly battered, fried seafood is served unadorned, but here it’s buried beneath a pile of chips, served with aioli and garnished with parsley. And in another bowl there are ribbons of pasta drenched in a ragu-like cuadril sauce, containing large, peppery chunks of tender meat.

For Pietro, who moved to Buenos Aires from Genoa in 1992, the culinary heritage of the bodegón is worth preserving. Porteño food, he argues, may have been born in tenement houses, but it’s been cemented into the city’s cuisine in places like Los Galgos. “The bodegón is for this city, not the rest of the country,” he says. “Very Porteño.”

And, while many Italians would turn their noses up at these dishes, the obverse is also true: to those who’ve grown up with huge, everything-piled-on plates of pasta and milanesa, a simple pasta dish might seem rather plain.

Arguably, the defining dish of this more-is-more cuisine is fugazza, the extravagant local version of pizza. If you head to Pizzería Güerrin, a cavernous restaurant on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Avenida Corrientes, you can order a quintessential example — a barely-there base buried under so much gooey cheese, shot through with onion, that eating it requires a knife and fork.

Fugazza, the extravagant local version of pizza, at Pizzería Güerrin on Avenida Corrientes.

Photograph by Tamara Goldenberg

Gelato also gets the Buenos Aires treatment. I experience this at Cremolatti, tucked away amid fashion stores on Avenida Cabildo in the city’s upmarket Belgrano district. Giuseppe Angelicola, whose family immigrated from Puglia in the 1950s, opened his first ice cream shop in 1987 and now has 80 in and around the city. He learned the secrets of making velvety, artisanal gelato from his mother, Gina, who herself ran a tiny gelateria.

I try the sambayon — nutty, with a warm thump of masala wine — and the rich, treacly dulce de leche. But the most eye-catching creation on offer is the cone piled high with ice cream and revolved under a chocolate tap until it’s completely encased. It’s the most wonderfully Porteño thing on the menu.

Keep it simple

Not everyone in Buenos Aires agrees that more is more. Some of the city’s Italian restaurants take a more purist approach, steering away from the Porteño hybrid dishes and, in some cases, avoiding them altogether.

In the lively Palermo Soho area, tucked between mural-plastered alleyways, open- sided brewpubs and rows of tiny galleries, shoe shops and leatherwork studios, turquoise- fronted La Alacena looks like a cosy trattoria transported from Italy. Owner Julieta Oriolo, whose mother is from Calabria, on Italy’s toe, makes ravioli and tagliatelle on site, steadfastly resisting any urge to pile on extra cheese.

Then there’s Sardinian-born chef Daniele Pinna, who moved to Buenos Aires in 2010 and opened his restaurant, La Locanda, in Recoleta, an upscale district with elegant townhouses and tree-lined streets. For Daniele, Buenos Aires is “the best city in the world” — but not when it comes to Italian food. The Argentinian take on pizza, for example, is “totally distorted”.

“Fugazza is focaccia, not pizza,” he says, with a dismissive sweep of a tattoo-sleeved arm. “I don’t think it’s bad, but it isn’t real Italian pizza. But Argentinian people love it with a nationalistic pride.”

Gelato at Cremolatti, on Avenida Cabildo in the city’s upmarket Belgrano district.

Photograph by Tamara Goldenberg

Daniele’s menu has obviously Italian dishes, like ricotta-stuffed ravioli and ossobuco (slow-braised veal). But many resist categorisation. I try crayfish with sharp endive and zippy cherry tomatoes, followed by a delicate plate of pillowy burrata and fresh mango, topped with ribbons of pecorino cheese — a dreamy combination, as it turns out, brought to life with a drizzle of garlic-and-basil-infused olive oil.

“It’s not Italian, it’s not Argentinian — it’s just Dani,” he says, face crinkling into a grin.

Daniele believes the city’s cooks and chefs are just as keen as he is to play a part in the developing story of Buenos Aires’ mongrel cuisine. He tells me he’s noticed an increasing number serving different cuisines together — not in the same dish, but at the same meal. A recent influx of immigrants from Israel, Korea and Peru, he points out, has further diversified the dining scene and led to a “fusion of the table”, as Daniele calls it.

Later on, I see, and taste, what he means, courtesy of Paola Salvador, who operates a ‘closed door’ restaurant, as the city’s word- of-mouth supper clubs are known. She runs it out of her bright, white-balconied apartment, overlooking a broad, leafy boulevard in the quiet Cañitas district.

Paola lived for several years in Bari, Puglia, “learning from grandmothers”. After returning home eight years ago, she began to share her food with friends, then friends of friends. Now her home is regularly filled with a mix of people she knows and people who’ve heard about her perfect pasta pomodoro and tiramisu: flavourful, simply prepared dishes that are something of a novelty here.

Yet Paola throws in seemingly random elements. Her rough squares of focaccia, so buttery-soft in the middle that the caramelised onions and slow-roasted tomatoes fall away from the bread, are accompanied by garlicky hummus and a delicate, less smoky take on baba ganoush.

Paola loves to travel — the walls are decorated with trinkets, from papier-mache elephants to tea towels displaying maps of Puglia — and likes to serve a range of cuisines. But Italian food is her biggest love.

“Love, love, love,” she exclaims, arms opening and eyes widening.

Owner Julieta Oriolo at La Alacena, in the lively Palermo Soho area.

Photograph by Tamara Goldenberg

The space is small, yet even with around half a dozen tables it feels warm and intimate rather than crowded. People graze on antipasti and nibble squares of parmigiana, prepared in a galley kitchen just off the living room. Paola weaves around the tables, refilling glasses, whisking away plates, then quickly replacing them again. The room hums with chatter, rising at regular intervals to raucous laughter.

A fellow diner, here with a group of friends, asks where I’m from. “Ah, Newcastle. Like the ale,” he nods. He tells me he heard about Paola’s place from a friend and loves the pared-back nature of her food. Porteños may be proud of their melting-pot heritage and cuisine, but that doesn’t always mean dismissing the classics. “We all have Italian roots,” the man adds, arms stretched wide and his entire upper body dipping backwards in a sort of shrug. “Everyone in Buenos Aires.”

Fernet is yet another culinary symbol of that heritage. The bitter aromatic digestif was brought to Argentina by Italians and is today the country’s third-most-consumed alcoholic drink, after wine and beer. However, there’s nothing sophisticated about the way Porteños drink it — in plastic cups topped up with cola.

It’s a party drink, rarely consumed in a cocktail or aperitivo — though that’s something Diego Díaz Varela hopes to change. He opened La Ferneteria in 2018, sprucing up a former garage with murals and a huge oval bar stocked with artisanal fernet alongside the biggest brand, Fernet-Branca, whose only distillery outside Italy is in Argentina.

Fernet cocktails aren’t yet much of a thing in Buenos Aires, but they really should be. I try an Italo-Argentino, a lightly frothed, deep purple cocktail made with fernet, red vermouth, malbec and rosemary syrup. It’s the type of random ingredient list I’m becoming use to, but the result is rich, rounded and refreshing, like a particularly interesting sangria. And it’s basically Porteño in a glass.

“Yes, maybe,” ponders Diego, when I suggest this to him. “Why not?”

It’s a favourite phrase here. Whatever the question, whether you’re asking someone if they like a particular food, want to go dancing, or fancy an aperitivo. Invariably, the answer is: “Why not?”

Somehow, those two words sum up the Porteño approach to food — as much as you can sum up any cuisine that’s been simmering for centuries, that’s been sniffed and slurped by a stream of different cooks, each adding a dash of this spice, that herb, and perhaps a few extra handfuls of grated cheese.

Porteños like to play with their food. They add twists and turns, embellishments and extras. They look at pizza and wonder if it might be tastier with an abundance of melted cheese and onion. They encase gelato cones in chocolate.

Why? Because, well — why not?

Fresh pasta at Cucina Paradiso.

Photograph by Tamara Goldenberg

LOCAL FAVOURITES

Fugazzeta
Porteños’ favourite comfort food, and perhaps their most bizarre take on pizza. While normal fugazza has a base that’s buried under a mound of cheese and onion, with fugazzeta, this base is stuffed with mozzarella, while the onions are scattered on top.

Milanesa a la napolitana
There’s a tendency in Buenos Aires to treat pretty much every food like a pizza — that is, to drown it in toppings. Milanesa (breaded veal escalopes) are a prime example. This version is topped with ham, covered in a herby tomato sauce and finished with cheese, melted under the grill.

Pizza din fainá
This is a dish assembled at the table. The diner orders a mozzarella pizza and several fainás (chickpea flatbreads, thought to have been introduced by Genoese immigrants). They then place fainá strips on top of pizza slices and eat together.

Matambre
One of the most interesting dishes, both visually and taste wise, this is flank steak spread with puréed carrots, peas or peppers, rolled around boiled eggs, then steamed and sliced. It’s a twist on beef braciola, a Sicilian roulade usually cooked in wine and served in a tomato sauce.

Pasta frola de dulce de membrillo
This intensely sweet dessert, with a shortbread-like crust, gets its name from an Italian shortbread crust, pasta frola, used to make jam-filled pies. The Argentinian version uses quince paste (dulce de membrillo), or, for even more sweetness, dulce de leche.

Aperol spritz at Salón 1923, the rooftop bar at Palacio Barolo.

Photograph by Tamara Goldenberg

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
Carriers offering nonstop flights to Buenos Aires from the UK ordinarily include Norwegian from Gatwick and British Airways from Heathrow. 

Where to stay
Jardin Escondido, in the Palermo Soho neighbourhood, offers individually decorated rooms set around a plant-filled courtyard with a swimming pool. Doubles, on a B&B basis, are typically from £330. thefamilycoppolahideaways.com

How to do it
Journey Latin America offers a seven-night stay in Buenos Aires from £2,248, including B&B accommodation at Jardin Escondido, as well as international flights from Heathrow and private transfers.

Published in issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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