Even though they’re the only two Sicilians that I’ve ever met in Mexico, I do understand why they’d move to San Miguel de Allende. It’s probably because, like me, they just might think it’s the most absolutely wonderful place in the world.
But to then move out to a place where you expect to hear duelling banjos, to a place where you can’t even walk to a bar, to a place where only Birkenstocks and boots usually tread, and open a restaurant. Hmmmmmm!
I’m talking about Laura Buccheri and Justin Marino and their restaurant La Cucina di Afrodita.
To get to La Cucina, you take the road to Dolores Hidalgo, then the road to Atotonilco, then a dirt lane with moguls that would send Jean-Claude Killy ass over tea kettle. Then, just after the second person says, “Are you sure we haven’t passed it?”, on the left you’ll see a house that you’re sure you’ve seen in a Tim Burton movie. Next it’s a left turn and a sign saying Rancho Jaguar; rows of exotic cacti; dogs, cats, turkeys and chickens; a building that turns out to not be the restaurant but a folk art museum; a grove of long-needled pines; and La Cucina di Afrodita.
The casita that you’ll see housing La Cucina di Afrodita is also where Laura Buccheri and Justin Marino put their shoes under their bed. The little casita is their home. Seating for the restaurant is strictly al fresco, with three long tables each seating eight on the covered patio. The restaurant is only open on Saturday and Sunday. And only for lunch. And, despite the 40 minutes it takes to get there, last Sunday it was full.
The cuisine is hard to describe but easy to love. There’s a lot that’s Italian. There’s a little that’s Sicilian. There’s next to nothing you would find on another menu in San Miguel or perhaps anywhere else in the world. And that’s what I like best.
Chef Laura Buccheri calls it “progressive traditional Sicilian” and “looking back at the ancient traditions with modern fusion.”
As far as the origins of those traditions, Laura told me, “My cuisine is influenced by my grandma, my family, my town, but also by all the places I have visited. I put a sprinkle of all of this in my dishes.”
If you’re strictly meat and potatoes, don’t even consider roughing that road to La Cucina di Afrodita. For every plate that chef Laura Buccheri puts on the table is filled with one guaranteed ingredient. Imagination.
Actually, I should say “plate that Justin Marino puts on the table” for Laura’s husband Justin is the maitre d’, the waiter, and virtually anything and everything else that happens outside the kitchen.
Sunday’s lunch started with a salmon and mango tartare. I’ve had mango in ceviche but never in a tartare. The older I get, the more I like trying new things (am I afraid I’m going to run out of them?) and the innovation didn’t stop there. On top was olive oil ice cream and, over everything, tamarind and chipotle sauce.
Next up was the pasta course. I was a bit taken aback by the colors at first. I thought these belong on a woman’s body not in a bowl. This is more fashion than fusion. But I grew to like them more as I tasted the colors together. The tagliatelle had been cooked in purple cabbage water and, unlike most pepper and spinach and squid ink colored pastas that are more flash than dash, the taste of the cabbage came through. The pasta was topped with a sausage ragu (“a very old recipe from my grandmother”, Laura told me) and a pureed green bean pesto.
Sausage is not the only thing that Chef Laura is creating in her own kitchen.
“Concerning cheeses, Justin and I decided to produce ourselves what we think is not high enough in quality and taste in the supermarkets,” said Laura, her arms doing impressions of a windmill every time she speaks. “If we didn’t make our own mascarpone, the price of a portion of tiramisu would at least double.
“Our priority is to give real Italian flavors. The taste of most of the Italian products we find in the supermarkets is light years away from the real tastes, and too expensive too, so we decided to source our ingredients in a more difficult but yet healthier and cheaper way, which allows us to serve genuine food at reasonable prices. We are making our own mascarpone, ricotta, caciotta, gorgonzola, mozzarella and stracchino.”
There was a cheese topping the next course, however, that Justin and Laura didn’t make. The menu called the dish calamari and octopus zuppetta. Now when a Sicilian serves something in a red sauce, I don’t usually get to excited because Sicilians always seem to put one too many dollops of tomato paste in their tomato sauce. But, happily, that isn’t one of the traditions being carried on by Laura Buccheri. The sauce was still a titch overpowering for the delicate taste of the squid and octopus but the tenderness of the seafood made up for it.
And what was that cheese on top? Something that Chef Laura was very excited about. Something she told me that “you might not find anywhere else but Sicily”. And where did La Cucina di Afrodita find the cheese in the middle of Mexico?
“Ricotta Salata is a typical Sicilian specialty…something we absolutely wanted to include in our menus,” Laura said. “Up to now, we haven’t been able to find fresh sheep milk here, so I was forced to bring a few kilos of it from Sicily on my last trip.
“I left Mexico carrying an empty suitcase, which I brought back loaded with food. When I landed, I discovered my suitcase didn’t travel with me and it didn’t arrive in Mexico until the day after. Luckily, customs didn’t hold any goods and allowed everything to be delivered to our home. The ricotta was still fresh. I’d packed it with ice bars.”
The Sicilian ricotta had been baked and grated. And was especially good scooped up with the homemade crostini.
“We are exploring sourdough bread production,” Laura told me. “It’s much healthier than normal bread, with always new starter yeast batches or colonies. The result is delicious fresh bread and focaccia.”
Next up was something else fresh, very fresh actually. A simple salad of greens same-day pulled from La Cucina di Afrodita’s own garden.
“The farm-to-table concept is what we are truly aiming for day after day, in order to give our customers quality controlled foods, cooked with love,” Laura continued.
There was still one more course. Or two more courses if you were ever smart enough to marry a woman who worries about her weight. With a choice of two desserts, the choice was very easy.
“We’ll have one of each”, I told Justin.
There are a lot of things Laura Buccheri shines at but when she puts on her pasticciere toque, she positively sparkles.
The first was one of Laura’s legendary profiteroles stuffed with cream cheese. The second was a semifreddo cake swimming in a chocolate sauce. It was a dogfight of desserts as I tried to pick the winner between the two. The official decision? A draw.
After winning the game of my kitchen’s smaller than your kitchen with Don Day’s Wife, Chef Laura now emerged from the casita to the applause of the crowd.
I must say I was worried when Justin and Laura started their business. I knew that people would enjoy the trip out to the country. But I wasn’t sure people would be happy paying 200 pesos for a cab each way. I knew people would like the outdoor setting and the communal style of dining (it reminds me of those family lunch scenes in European movies from the Sixties). But the food I really wasn’t sure about. It’s food that I cherish. But normal people? Won’t they want chicken parmesana or fettucine alfredo? Even if they’re dishes you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere on “the boot”.
“Often people said you are serving unusual food”, said Laura. “Initially we were a bit worried about this, because we were afraid that our customers only wanted the lasagna, meatballs, spaghetti alla carbonara, etc.
“We were instead happily surprised to learn that they started loving these unusual menus, which brought them to know and appreciate dishes of the very ancient Sicilian and Italian tradition, which they may not find in any other place than Sicily.
“Many restaurateurs I have met abroad always told me they found it very difficult to introduce new dishes less known to foreigners. ‘They don’t like this kind of food they want to have pizza and pasta’, they told me.
“I’ve never believed this. In my experience, all of the people from other countries I’ve met and cooked for, adored the most unusual dishes I’ve proposed to them.”
I don’t know how to say it in Italian. But I do know how to say it in French. Vive la difference.
The ride home from La Cucina di Afrodita didn’t seem so long or so bumpy with a belly full of Sicilian food and a noggin full of Chilean wine. I slouched down a little as the cab tried to add an extra lane to the highway and thought about that lifestyle that Justin Marino and Laura Buccheri have chosen. Maybe I could survive without being able to walk to a bar. Maybe.
La Cucina di Afrodita is located about half an hour from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open for lunch at 1:30 pm on most Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations are essential and can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 415 124 2435. At the same email address, you can request to be put on the restaurant’s mailing list and receive their weekly menu. For more info, go to http://lacucinadiafrodita.wix.com/lacucinadiafrodita.