Chef News

Lorena Cantarovici Plays With Tradition at Maria Empanada

The sunlit interior of Maria Empanada, Lorena Cantarovici's rendition of an Argentinean bakery and cafe, invites guests to linger, with three distinct spaces that capture various aspects of the South American country's social culture. The front section adjacent to the bakery cases and coffee bar is "a little bit of a cafe in Argentina," Cantarovici explains, where customers can grab a quick empanada or sip coffee and "watch everybody on the street." The middle section mimics an estancia, a rural estate guesthouse, with large, rustic wooden tables where friends and family gather, "talking forever to try to resolve every problem in the world," she says. And the back section is more elegant, with dark, modern furniture and corners where couples can chat quietly.

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Still, something has been missing since she closed her eatery in a hidden Lakewood storefront and reopened Maria Empanada six months ago on this prominent corner of South Broadway: wine, the unifying element of Buenos Aires restaurant life. "A glass of good Malbec with an empanada is like being in paradise," Cantarovici says.

But after months of dealing with paperwork and red tape, a tangle that had her afraid to even answer the inquiries of customers, Cantarovici should finally have a liquor license for Maria Empanada by the start of November, adding the final note of authenticity to the otherwise pitch-perfect shop.

In anticipation, she's planning menu ideas, like an "executive combo," which will comprise two or three empanadas and a glass of wine. "It's a civilized way to enjoy food," she promises. She'll also serve wine in pinguinos, penguin-shaped carafes that are common in Argentina, where wine was traditionally delivered not in standard 75-centiliter bottles, but in large jugs called damajuanas that were too big for pouring tableside. Instead, the wine was decanted into more manageable ceramic or glass pinguinos. Maria Empanada will have beer, too: The sign painted on the exterior wall has already been updated with the words "cerveza tirada" -- draft beer.

Cantarovici didn't start out as a professional baker; she worked as a banker and CPA in Buenos Aires and also earned a master's degree in marketing in Mexico. Even so, she says, "my biggest education is in the kitchen. I was cooking since I was four." Her mother taught her how to make empanadas, tartas and other savory and sweet baked goods, and she brought those recipes with her when she moved to this country. When she found she didn't enjoy working in the financial industry here, she started making empanadas for friends, and then for friends of friends, and she soon turned her garage into a commercial kitchen. She realized she could run her own restaurant when she successfully filled an order for 100 empanadas; her standard orders had been for only a dozen or two at a time.

Managing Maria Empanada -- hiring and training staff, managing the books, meeting with contractors (who last week were installing new shelves and equipment for serving wine and beer) -- now takes a good amount of Cantarovici's time, but she still loves working in the kitchen, especially when it comes to creating new dishes for the menu. In Argentina, empanadas are very traditional. Even the shapes are recognizable to customers; each type of filling is encased in delicate pastry marked by a specific shape or pattern. Maria Empanada still uses those shapes -- labels are added for those who aren't familiar with the code -- but Cantarovici also uses fillings not found in traditional empanada bakeries, often featuring ingredients foreign to Argentina. One of her favorites is cilantro; she uses it in an empanada of ham, mango and mozzarella. "I want to do a steak-and-Malbec empanada," she adds, "once we start serving wine." She also makes sweet empanadas -- recently a version with a strawberry-and-champagne filling -- that are uncommon in Buenos Aires.

Keep reading for more from Lorena Cantarovici of Maria Empanada.

Maria Empanada stocks other pastries, both savory and sweet, including big, quiche-like tartas, which contain far fewer eggs and more vegetables than quiche; a Spanish tortilla that's like a thick potato-and-egg pie with no crust; shortbread cookie sandwiches called alfajores that are filled with dulce de leche; and the thin, cookie-sheet-sized empanada gallega stuffed with tuna and cut into slices. Cantarovici is also making canastitas, or "little baskets," which are open-topped empanadas that allow the baker to add extra toppings after baking.

For someone who has been making empanadas all her life, the cooking comes easy. In Argentina, mothers teach their daughters how to seal pastries at a young age so that they can avoid the rote work themselves. But teaching adult employees the same skills is a little tougher. "It takes some longer than others; the ones who learn the fastest earn Argentinean nationality," Cantarovici jokes.

When she's not training her small, friendly staff, she's cooking up more twists on tradition. She's been collaborating with Former Future Brewing just up the street on monthly beer and empanada pairings, creating a quartet of empanadas that aren't on her regular menu. And she's also bringing in yerba mate, the Argentinean herb tea, so that she can offer a traditional mate service. The company she's working with finds traditional yerba mate farmers in Argentina who don't use modern, mechanized processes, so that earnings go back to the people who need it most. "I'm trying to get things with a story -- no big corporations," she explains.

Her Lakewood location didn't have room for innovation, and so far Maria Empanada's new neighborhood is working out well. "I love it," Cantarovici says. "When I see a restaurant with kids, I am happy." On weekends, the kids play in the booth that's shaped like a bus -- when their parents aren't trying to lure them into trying Argentinean food.

Cantarovici appreciates that Americans, even the young ones, seem to take to her South American specialties. "We use familiar flavors and spices -- paprika, oregano, salt and pepper," she notes. Even the contractor who'd never tried empanadas when he did the original buildout on the restaurant is now a regular. "He's like family," says Cantarovici.

She wants to ensure that that family of customers is growing, because Denver's Argentinean community is small -- too small to keep the eatery in business on its own. For her part, Cantarovici appreciates the local dining scene's diversity, as long as that diversity includes meat. "I'm Argentinean," she explains, adding that Fleming's Prime Steakhouse is a favorite for a good, grass-fed steak. But the restaurants she likes the best -- Tapas d'Jerez in Centennial, and Damascus, for the service as well as the Middle Eastern food -- are much like her own: small and welcoming, with something new to offer the city.

And maybe a glass of wine, too.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation