Chef Tony Pera and his new tPasta Restaurant bring the taste of Tuscany to Cuenca
By Stephen Vargha
Since the peak of the Covid pandemic in Ecuador, the restaurant scene in Cuenca has exploded. It is not only the number of restaurants, but the new types of restaurants.
In the last three years, the choices of ethnic foods have increased. This includes restaurants such as Cooking With Rey (Cambodia) and Lamian China (Northern China).
Now, you can add authentic Italian to the list.
“I had this concept for 10 years: Real Italian pasta,” said Tony Pera. “I have a Tuscany concept for the restaurant.”
Pera, 39 years old, grew up in Lucca, Italy. Located on the Serchio River, in Tuscany, Pera grew up surrounded by olive groves and wine vineyards.
And lots of good cooking.
“I started cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was very young,” said Pera. “My grandfather was a stereotypical Italian male, and he did not want me cooking as it was not a manly thing.”
The young Tuscan boy started working in his uncle’s restaurant. “It was a huge restaurant in Tuscany. It was three stories tall and held 1,500 customers,” said Pera. “It was a crazy experience with too many people and too many chefs.”
It was there Pera learned to prepare and cook Bistecca alla Fiorentina, one of the most popular dishes of Tuscan cuisine. “It is huge… four fingers thick,” said Pera. “It is a 2½-to-3-pound steak.”
By the time Pera was 13, he was working at his cousin’s pizzeria, Pizza Pazza A Pezzi (Crazy Pizza Pieces). Five years later, Pera opened and operated a second Pizza Pazza A Pezzi. He ran the pizzeria with a woodstove for 12 years before closing it down due to high taxes in Italy.
After closing the pizzeria, Pera’s uncle pushed him to have a better experience in the gastronomical world. “Because of my uncle, I ended up working in Normandy and the south of France, Amsterdam, Cairo, Madagascar, and Cape Verde (island country 311 miles west of Senegal),” said Pera. “I was hired to build restaurants around the world.”
The work was very tiring and with lots of pressure, so Pera went to a Chile for a planned one-year sabbatical. “Three months later, I was working for Pancho Toro, a really big chef with a long-running television show in Chile,” said Pera. “I was in charge of all his restaurants around the world.”
Meeting Toro was by happenstance as Pera met the famous chef at his friend’s wedding. “Pancho is like my Chilean father,” said Pera. “Pancho had so much trust in me that there was no formal contract. He told me that he trusted me.”
Two years later, Pera moved to another continent. “I moved to Shanghai in 2016 for another experience,” said Pera. “At that time, it was easy to begin a business in China. It was another great opportunity for me.”
Pera opened a consulting company for restaurants in China’s largest city. He helped the Chinese to open restaurants of various ethnicities throughout the country.
The young Tuscan was still cooking. Government-owned China Central Television recognized Pera and three others as Master Chefs for their Italian cooking.
Then there was his importing business, “The Wild.” Pera brought in foods from Italy for 800 supermarkets in China. His line of foods ended up in 28 countries.
“These were the first quality Italian products in China,” said Pera. “My face was on the products. Because of that, people were always recognizing me and saying hello to me on the Shanghai subway.”
Pera and three other chefs were recognized by Guinness World Records in 2017 for 488 people eating his pasta at the very same time. “It took 17 chefs and 120 waiters,” said Pera.
Four years later, Pera published a small paperback cookbook entitled, “Twenty Two Times Tony.” The cookbook was distributed in China, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Spain, and Thailand. Seven million copies were sold.
By chance, he met Cuencana Stefie Matute in Shanghai in late-2020.
“One of my good friends lived in Tony’s building. Both of them had dogs so they knew each other,” said Matute. “She told Tony that she had a good friend for him.”
Soon afterwards, business dried up for Pera due to the Covid pandemic. “Shanghai became the epicenter, and no one in the rest of China wanted to work with me because of where I lived,” said Pera. “The Chinese government was too controlling. It was way too stressful, so we left China in November 2022.”
Pera and Matute went to Italy for a month before they arrived in Cuenca. “My goal was to move to Cuenca and relax for a year,” said Pera.
Like Chile, that did not last very long. Before long, Pera was looking for a place for his newest venture.
“I had this concept for 10 years: Real Italian pasta,” said Pera. “I want it to be the best, so I use an Italian pasta making machine.”
The young chef said he had a Tuscany concept for the restaurant. “I consider this place to be my house, not a restaurant,” said Pera.
It took little time for Pera to find a location on the southern end of Roberto Crespo Toral. Before renting the house, he asked the landlady to give him the keys for 24 hours. In that time, he stayed at the house to get a good feel of it.
“I like Cuenca. I like this city. It is a relaxing city,” said Pera. “And this house is perfect for it because it is in a very relaxing and lovely neighborhood.”
The restaurant, tPasta (The “t” is for Tony), was designed without an architect or an interior designer.
“What is in this restaurant came from my mind,” said Pera. “I was here every day coordinating the construction. I even did some of the work to get the restaurant open.”
tPasta opened on July 4, and it has been busy every night. The first Friday night was completely booked as word got out quickly in the Cuencano community.
“I was surprised to see a full house on our first Friday,” said Pera. “I am happy that the people of Cuenca like my food as we work every day to keep the quality high. I try to make every day be better than the one before.”
Currently, there are about 25 different types of pasta, but Pera said there may be more “tomorrow.” The goal for Pera is always to have something new on the menu.
Pasta is even one of the desserts at tPasta. Pera said the unique and popular chocolate pasta dessert with nuts, caramel sauce, and a scoop of ice cream came in a dream.
If you just want to come for a drink, there is a cozy, very small bar at the front of the restaurant. “It is a classic old bar – 1940s style,” said Pera. “We have whiskey, cognac, mixed drinks, and coffee.”
Pera and Matute said recommendations are highly recommended as they currently can only seat about 50 people on two floors of the house. Tables will be held for only 15 minutes.
The restaurant is dedicated to his grandmother. There is a photo of Pera and his grandmother adorning the wall at the entrance.
“I am a sentimental man, and this restaurant is for my grandmother,” said Pera. “All the good values I learned were from my grandparents, especially I grew up in their house.”
The couple is very confident about the future of tPasta.
“People want new experiences. They are open to new things to enjoy life,” said Matute. “We need to live every day to the fullest. We never know what the next day will be like.”
“I feel that my grandmother will come through the front door any day,” said Pera. “And she will congratulate me.”
tPasta, Roberto Crespo Toral y Manuel Farfan, Cuenca, 099-838-6014 (WhatsApp), https://www.facebook.com/tpasta.ec, Tuesday-Saturday: 12 Noon to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 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.