I grew up in New York’s Little Italy. As a small boy my mother would give me a dollar and send me down the block for spaghetti and meatballs to an Italian restaurant run by an old couple from Sicily. “Mangia tutti” the nonna would admonish as the delectable plate of goodness stood steaming in front of me. We shopped for cheese and pastries on Bleeker Street, fresh pasta on Houston Street…and then there was the legendary slice of New York pizza, which combined the best of Naples and Brooklyn.Those food memories are hard to recreate. Since then I’ve honed my knowledge of cucina italiana on various trips to the homeland, and worked my way through some of the best Italian cookbooks, such as Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian and the Silver Spoon.
Although there’s been an Italian community in Mexico since the 19th century, it has never been large. The 2000 census reported about 4000 Italian nationals residing here, although there are many more descendents from the old country. Besides the ubiquitous presence of pizza, the most famous culinary contribution of Italy to Mexico is the torta, the beloved sandwich based on pannino (an Italian roll) and supposedly made popular by turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants.
Today, with growing interest in international cuisine and an increasingly sophisticated public, there’s a wide range of places to eat, from humble pizzerias to pricy northern Italian ristorantes. And the availability of good ingredients is inspiring to any home cook.
BellariaMasaryk 514, Polanco
Open Monday-Saturday 1:30PM-12AM, Sunday 1:30-5PM
Average per person with wine $400 pesos
Bellaria, a favorite with many Polanco residents, is a dependable Italian restaurant, complete with wood burning pizza oven. The airy, modern space is ideal for a pleasant Sunday comida or relaxing dinner. Start with the salame di polpo Bellaria (finely sliced octopus dressed with olive oil and lemon) or tartara di tonno, fresh tuna, lightly dressed and lazily draped over a bed of arugula. Thin, crusty pizzas also make a good starter. The classic Margherita , featuring tomato, mozzarella and basil, would be my first choice. Several unusual pastas are on the menu, such as a meaty pappardelle al’anatra (wide noodles with duck), a subtle rigatoni ai carciofi (with artichoke), a hearty maritime spaghetti al cartoccio (cooked in a sealed packet with seafood), or the classic Bolognese (the slow cooked meat sauce).
Several rissotti are also offered, and they are correctly done- the rice al dente and creamy. Best is the gamberi, asparegi e zafferano (shrimp, asparagus and saffron), a perfect combination. Moving on (if that is possible) you might order the filleto ai funghi porcini (beef filet with porcini mushrooms) or a simple grilled tuna. Desserts are Italian classics – panna cotta, a creamy custard and ubiquitous in Italy, is a rarely seen option. Prices are on the high side, but the quality matches.
Agustín Melgar 6, Condesa
Open Monday-Saturday 1:30PM-12AM
Average per person with wine $300 pesos
My favorite place to eat Italian food is also the simplest and least pretentious. Casa D’Italia is a typical trattoria, looking much like those found all over Italy, red checkered tablecloths and all. It was conceived 13 years ago by gregarious chef and owner, Luigi Cesarano Vitiello, who hails from Naples. The small space, housing only 12 tables, has changed very little over the years. Luigi continues to preside over his crowd of demanding regulars, many of whom live in nearby Edificio Condesa, an old complex famed for its artsy occupants and telenovela-like scandals. The menu, which for a change does NOT include pizzas, offers standard dishes from different parts of Italy. Several carpaccio (or sliced raw meat) antipasti, a minestrone, the classic stracciatella (beef broth thickened with egg), and crema di funghi (mushroom) make good starters. Pastas include a delectable fettucine alla Val D’Orcia, with shrimps, arugula and cream, and the simple spaghetti alle noci, with a “sauce “of walnuts, chili, parsley and garlic. Secondi (main dishes) comprise the classic Saltimbocca alla Romana, thin veal scallops with ham in a white wine sauce perfumed with sage. Gamberini al Marsala is another good choice – fat shrimp are sweetened with a little of that famous Sicilian wine. But be sure to ask for seasonal specialties as they do not appear on the menu. I always check to see if mussels are in – Luigi’s zuppa di cozze is the best. He also does an excellent rack of lamb, and will produce just about any dish you like if the ingredients are available. There’s a good selection of Italian wines, though few in the budget range. Do reserve a table as Casa D’Italia fills up fast.
ShoppingNowadays one can find almost any imported ingredient in Mexico; the only problem for the Italian home cook is acquiring certain fresh items which are rarely seen here, or only available in season. Good quality squid, clams and mussels, tender veal, true Italian sausage can be scarce. But fresh and aged cheeses, both national and imported are increasingly available, as are high quality hams and salamis.
Your local supermarket will likely offer imported Arborio rice for risotto, polenta and Italian pastas (I look for DiCecco brand, recommended by an Italian friend). Vegetables used in Italian cooking are also becoming common. In my local tianguis (Tuesdays on calle Pachuca in the Condesa) I can sometimes find two kinds of arugula as well as fennel bulbs.
The basil problem: Fresh basil (called albahaca in Spanish) is sold all over Mexico and usually used as an herbal remedy. The variety here, however, has little to do with the Italian kind – the flavor is minty and more reminiscent of Thai basil. I have occasionally seen “real” basil sold in packages at the Superama. Otherwise, your only option is to grow your own from seeds– not hard to do in a flowerpot or window box.
So…..mangia, mangia! And buon appetitio!
The MenuSan Miguel de Allende resident Margharita Failoni, a curator of contemporary art, lived for years in Rome with her husband Claudio. The following recipe is one she picked up there and it’s truly amazing. Although it uses surprisingly few ingredients and no meat stock, it’s surprisingly rich and hearty – a soup you can’t refuse.
Marge Failoni’s Amazing Soup from Rome
2 large cloves of garlic, sliced thin
one large bunch of zucchini flowers (flores de calabaza), yellow part only
a fistful of swiss chard (acelgas), without stems
6 – 8 very ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped (or use ½ large can whole Italian tomatoes)
a fistful of Italian basil (albahaca) leaves
4 cups water
Put everything in a pot with a very light sprinkling of salt. Cover and simmer until all the vegetables are cooked. Serve at room temperature with a light drizzle of good olive oil. Serve with bruschetta.
Shopping and cooking
Mercado San Juan –
Calle Ernesto Pugibet, centro
This is the best market in the city to find fresh produce and imported Italian cheeses such as Parmesan, pecorino, fontina, mozzarella and ricotta (go to Gastronomica San Juan, stall no.162, and its neighbor La Jersey around the corner). Seafood: mussels and calamares are occasionally available fresh. In the meat section, stands 44-46 sell veal scaloppini and ossobuco ready to cook.
Ayuntamiento 12, centro
Fresa 142, Ciudad Satélite
These stores sell dried pastas in many unusual shapes, as well as semolina (for making fresh pasta) and fresh ravioli. The original store is around the corner from the aforementioned Mercado San Juan.
Partimar Gastronomia Italiana
Rosas Moreno 32 (near Ribera San Cosme) San Rafael
Open Monday-Friday 10-7, Saturday 10-2
This large shop is located in the old working class neighborhood of San Rafael, only a few blocks from the San Cosme metro stop. It’s a good source for all kinds of packaged products, oils and vinegars, as well as cheeses and meats. They have a good selection of reasonably priced Italian wines. Several pasta machines are for sale here too. One-day classes are offered periodically – call for information.
Societá Dante Alighieri
Marsella 39, Zona Rosa
Tel. 5511-5257 / 5511-2953
This language school also offers Italian cooking classes.
Instituto Italiano di Cultura
Francisco Sosa 77, Coyoacán
This institution, located in a beautiful old mansion, has a small food store and offers cooking classes, as well a a host of cultural events – get on their email list.
Centro Gourmet Vittorio
Prol. Bosques de Reforma 1371, Lomas
This is a store specializing in all kinds of fresh pasta as well as imported cheeses and gourmet
products. See their website: www.vittorio.com.mx.
Besides Casa D’Italia and Bellaria, the following are worth trying:
Alfredo di Roma
Campos Eliseos 218 polanco; Tel. 5327-7700
Elegant and authentic
Av. del Parque. 2 (entrance on Av. Revolución), San Angel; Tel. 5663-1913 also at Masaryk 192, Polanco
Once recommended by my Italian teacher Elvis (his real name) as his favorite place in Mexico City.
Goldsmith 103, Polanco; Tel. 5282 1059
It’s another Polanco venue favored by an Italian friend.
Non Solo Pannino
Calle Orizaba, Plaza Luís Cabrera, between
Zacatecas and Guanajuato, Roma
They offer pannini and good salads with a view of pretty Parque Luis Cabrera.
Osteria Ocho (see post)
Rosetta (see post)
Trattoria della Casanuova,
Av. de la Paz 40, San Angel tel 5616-2288
This simple and friendly place hasexcellent pastas, a very good bakery downstairs and Rosemary Clooney on the sound system.
Av. Mexico 157, Condesa Tel. 5564-7441
It offers above-average cooking and a lovely view of Parque México – and it’s open late Sunday evenings.
For pizza:They haven’t figured out how to do “by the slice” well here, but the following turn out good pies:
Masaryk 48, Polanco; Tel. 5531-6828
I find their main dishes dissapointing but the brick oven pizza is excellent.
L’Atelier d’en Quim Jardí
San Luís Potosí 121, RomaI reviewed this groovy “Latin Quarter” type joint last year in these pages….the pizzas are still great.
Alfonso Reyes 193, CondesaIt’s Argentine – the pizzas are hearty and salads copious.
Cadereyta 19 corner Tamaulipas, Condesa
Many friends, if not 50, like the pies here.
See Fiesole and Bellario above.
This article has previously been published, in part in The News Mexico City; photos by Rodrigo Oropeza