Bocatti market and restaurant at Tres Puentes delivers the taste of Italy to Cuenca
By Stephen Vargha
When one is asked what ethnicities outside of the indigenous are represented in Cuenca, Italian is certainly not at the top of the list. Obviously Spanish is at the top with its colonial past.
Ecuador, especially Cuenca, has not been a destination for Italians. There are about 56,000 descendants of Italians in Ecuador, with most living in Guayaquil, according to “Rapporto Italiani nel Mondo.”
Despite the very low representation from “Bel Paese,” there is an Italian beacon on the south side of the city. At the redondel (traffic circle) at the southern end of Ave. Fray Vicente Solano sits Bocatti, an Italian restaurant, deli, and restaurant.
“In 1939, my grandfather, Sem Fontana, moved to Cuenca from Faedo, a little town in northern Italy,” said Gianella Sánchez. “All of his family was dying in the war, and he was about to be drafted into the military.”
Sánchez, 30, and the granddaughter of Fontana was talking about the Second World War. Italy had been at war since October 1935, when it invaded Ethiopia.
“The military took all of the family’s food and water,” said Sanchez. “Either die at home or die with us he was told.”
Fontana chose neither to be one of the 301,400 Italian military deaths nor the 457,000 civilians who perished in the war. He moved to Cuenca and started working at the Italian clothing factory, Pasamanería S.A. (PASA). It was one of the first clothing manufacturers in Ecuador and it is still in existence today.
After 24 years in Cuenca, in 1953, Fontana bought a meat factory that produced cured meats, including sausages. It was something he had always enjoyed and dreamed of.
The factory, located in what is now La Isla, was one of the leading meat producing companies in the country.
He fell in love with the area that Fontana bought all of La Isla, which is the Yanuncay River to the north, the Tarqui river to the south, and what is now Av. 24 de Mayo to the west. At that time Solano was a tiny road with one bridge over the Yanuncay River.
In 1989, Fontana closed the factory as he was exhausted with failing health. He followed most of his eight children to Quito, where he retired, dedicating more time to his family and hobbies such as growing his own vegetables and taking care of his bees.
It only stayed closed for a year as her parents, Walter and Catalina, reopened the factory. They diversified with more deli products “to better serve the people in Cuenca.”
The factory was the genesis of Bocatti.
“My parents decided to follow in his footsteps and diversify,” said Sánchez. “While in Europe, they saw the café business and decided to open one in Cuenca as there was nothing like it.”
Walter and Catalina opened the café in 2003 in what is known as Tres Puentes (“Three Bridges”). They called it Bocatti, which means “Little Bites” in Italian.
“There was only a small grocery store for processed foods and the mercado (27 de Febrero) for meats and vegetables,” said Sánchez. “There were no lights on the streets. My father paid half of the cost to have them installed.”
To her father, the location was a logical one as it was right next to the family’s factory. “His friends questioned why he built in the ‘middle of nowhere’ instead of in El Centro,” said Sánchez.
Being the first café and delicatessen in the city, Bocatti was always crowded. This was despite there being nothing around except factories and a few houses.
“People wanted to see what was going on,” said Sánchez. “It was a place to be seen as well as getting everything in one place at an affordable price.”
Every day Bocatti sells freshly baked goods. Their employees start baking at 4:00 in the morning at the old family factory to have everything ready for sale when the doors open.
“There are no preservatives in the baked goods,” said Sánchez. “Why do you need to buy food that lasts two years? We sell only fresh food.”
There is a rather large selection of cured meats and sausages. The recipes for them are Italian and German.
Bocatti’s prepared meals may be their most popular food. The choices that Sánchez describes as “hearty and filling” keep growing.
What is offered changes every week. Bocatti publishes the menu on Facebook and Instagram.
“We are now selling 200 portions each day,” said Sánchez. “We deliver prepared food, too. That part of the business is growing quickly as people do not have the time to go cross town and get back to work in time.”
Orders to be picked up or delivered can be made in advance via WhatsApp.
Sánchez and her family still have strong ties to Italy. They sell four types of wine from Graziano Fontana. It is her uncle’s winery in Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.
“It is our heritage. It reminds me of my grandfather who was an excellent example,” said Sánchez. “We are really proud to have it here as it is sold in Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, and New York City.”
The northern Italian winery has been in the family for three generations. Up until 1988, the family sold their grapes to other wineries, but they were not happy with the quality of wines produced.
Four different wines from the family vineyard are sold at Bocatti: Müller-Thurgau (a cross of Riesling with Madeleine Royale), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), and Lagrein (a red wine grape variety native to the valleys of northern Italy).
Graziano Fontana wines can be purchased to take home or with your meal at Bocatti. “We sell it at the same price for your meal as if you were taking it home. There is no markup,” said Sánchez.
An expansion of food offerings is possible as Bocatti is considering importing some quality European products, including olive oil from Italy. Italian olive oil is considered some of the best in the world and is often a first choice for consumers looking for high-quality olive oil.
To better serve Cuenca, Bocatti is opening a second location on Calle Ricardo Darquea Granda, in Puerto del Sol. An opening date has not been set.
“It is across the street from Chueca, in Plaza Soleil,” said Sánchez. “It won’t be as big as the original location.”
Surviving in the restaurant business is a difficult accomplishment. In the United States, the average restaurant’s life span is five years with up to 90 percent of independently owned restaurants closing in year one.
Bocatti has been around for 20 years.
“It’s more than a business to us. We put our hearts into it,” said Sánchez. “We are not a fancy place. We want you to sit down and be tranquillo.”
Bocatti, Ave. Don Bosco y Camino Viejo A Turi (Tres Puentes), Cuenca, 097-938-2041 (WhatsApp), http://bocatti.com.ec/, Hours: Sunday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.