It's normal for a restaurant owner to be nervous on opening day -- even if it's not your first rodeo and you've assembled an experienced staff. There's often chaos, flared tempers and a general reaction of palpable fretfulness. But this morning, at the new Maria Empanada, the vibe was pure joy. Five minutes before opening the doors at 11 a.m., owner Lorena Cantarovici gathered her staff in a circle, wiped the tears from her eyes and quietly thanked her staff (more times than most of us get thanked in a week) for "creating a little bit of Argentina on South Broadway."
Cantarovici, who opened the original -- and super-tiny -- Maria Empanada in a log-exterior storefront in October of 2011, closed that location on February 15 of this year to relocate to bigger quarters on South Broadway, namely the former Buffalo Doughboy space, which closed in the summer of 2013. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" murmurs Cantarovici, who named the restaurant after her mother. "My mom -- she's my best friend -- taught me everything I know," she adds.
And that education included how to make mesmerizing empanadas, Latin American marvels created from fresh dough and fresh ingredients, their golden crusts filled with everything from mozzarella, ham and cheese to green onions, red peppers, eggs and steak. In her new location, Cantarovici displays thirteen varieties of empanadas, including breakfast empanadas, which share space in the same glass case with gorgeous tartas; Spanish tortillas; a vegetarian terrina that should grace the cover of a glossy food title; sweet medialunas (the Argentinean equivalent of a croissant); and beautiful confections like banatella (caramelized bananas with melted hazelnut chocolate), dulce de leche roll cakes; empanadas hugging masala wine-poached pears; and alfajores and alfajorcitos.
And while the first Maria Empanada was more of a grab-and-go operation, the new corner nook is the kind of place that makes you want to stay...and stay...and stay. And lingering, says Cantarovici, is highly encouraged. "In Buenos Aires, that's what we do: We gather with friends at a cafe or coffee house, and we spend all day there talking about the problems of the world, politics -- everything," she notes.
And here, Cantarovici has designed a space that's actually partitioned into three: an area with a custom-made, hand-painted Argentinean bus that doubles as a table for kids, plus two, ten-seat community tables that Cantarovici describes as "rural," an apt adjective to illustrates the rusticity of the rough-hewn wood; a second, more elegant alcove that's strewn with hand-crafted wooden tables illuminated by crystal chandeliers; and a third niche that's typical of a coffeehouse-cafe, where parlor chairs surround rounded tables that overlook the display case and the barista station, which is worth a whole essay, if only for the espresso machine, a gleaming, jaw-dropping, magnificent tower of silver that was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in May of 2006.
The machine, designed by a company called Victoria Arduiro, deserves a much more regal name, especially considering there are only 100 of these in the world; Maria Empanada has the 25th one that was made -- that number is etched onto the exterior -- and it sat in storage for seven years in Georgia, before Cantarovici's husband, Daniel, got his hands on one. They're the Rolls Royce of espresso machines and supremely expensive -- more than some cars -- but, oh, to have one. "It's my baby," says Cantarovici, "and it does everything, including giving you a massage." That's a joke, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true.
But what's not a joke is Cantarovici's genuine passion for her country -- and the food that she grew up with in Buenos Aires. "Everything here -- the tables, the empanadas, the floors, the coffee -- it's all made with love, and when I saw this space and realized what I could do with it, I knew it was meant for me," she says.
As soon as you pass through the vestibule at Maria Empanada, there's an ornate wood-and-wrought-iron Argentinean door that separates that entryway from the restaurant, and the door, stresses Cantarovici, is where it all starts. "It's the opening of life, the beginning of a journey," she says. And the entryway into empanada nirvana.
Maria Empanada is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. now until Friday. On Saturday, hours will be from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Beginning on Monday, April 21, regular hours will be from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
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Here's a look at the space, the menu and the food -- and Biker Jim (and his posse), who happened to be the first customers.