Chef News

Lorena Cantarovici Plays With Tradition at Maria Empanada

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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.

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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