First look: A charming new Maria Empanada opens on South Broadway
All photos by Lori Midson.
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.