Even as his business suffers, this Italian expat feeds hundreds every morning in El Centro

Aug 11, 2020 | 11 comments

By Graciela Quinde

Business is down 70 percent at Luca Pallanca’s El Centro pizza restaurant since coronavirus health emergency restrictions began in March. The crisis forced him to close his dining room at Pizza y Focaccia La Matriz, at the corner of Presidente Cordova and Borrero, where he now offers carry-out only.

The line of people waiting to pick up food at Focaccia stretched an entire block on Presidente Cordova Tuesday morning.

“Business is bad for everyone but there are others who are suffering much more than I am,” says Luca, who moved to Cuenca from Genoa, Italy in 2014. “My main interest now is providing food for these people. I can’t tell you how much it breaks my heart to see people, especially mothers with children, who go hungry.”

Luca’s Todos Somos Uno (We are all one) project of giving out food began before the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had food we had prepared but didn’t sell at the restaurant and I hated to throw it away since I knew there were people who needed it so we started giving it away each morning,” he says.

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At first, 20 to 30 people lined up outside the restaurant for a bag of leftovers. As word spread, the line of hungry people grew and soon the restaurant needed to bake extra meals. Today, as the pandemic takes its toll in Cuenca and worldwide, the line outside Focaccia often numbers more than 200, stretching west down Presidente Córdova, wrapping south down Luis Cordero.

Luca Pallanca

The growing numbers prompted Luca to seek donations from other businesses and individuals. “Before, we could handle the need through the restaurant but that’s no longer possible,” he says. Recently, he received a commitment from Megatienda del Sur on Av. Las Americas to deliver 100 food kits a month through the end of the year. Megatienda also set up food donation containers near the store exit so customers can drop off extra purchases for the project. In addition to help from larger stores, Luca receives donations from smaller businesses and individual vendors – early last week, for example, a local vendor dropped off six dozen eggs that volunteers promptly distributed.

Among Todos Somos Uno’s many needs is storage space and refrigeration for incoming donations, which will be more important as the project expands its service beyond the historic district.

Luca says his experience as a construction project manager in Italy serves him well. “My job there was handling logistics, making sure the building materials were available when the workers needed them,” he says. “The work with Todos Somos Uno is different but we have to manage the food and supplies that are donated and make sure they are distributed on time. For example, if we receive a donation of uncooked chicken, it has to be refrigerated, cooked and given out while it is still good. One of our main objectives is not to waste food.”

A man receives good at Focaccia.

Luca has been featured in local radio, television and newspaper interviews and has been recognized by the city of Cuenca, which provides Citizen Guard personnel for crowd control during food distribution. “I’m not interested in advertising or promoting my restaurant and I tell those who donate that too. This is a project that comes from the heart and is not about promoting personal and business interests. It’s about helping people in desperate need.”

Todos Somos Uno only accepts donations of food, clothing and household goods, not money. “I don’t want to get into the bureaucracy that accepting money requires. My employees and the volunteers don’t accept cash.”

If people want to make a donation they can contact Luca, his employees or volunteers to make arrangements for drop-offs at the restaurant. 

Todos Somos Uno is not Luca’s first community project. Since 2016, he has given away 2,500 donated toys to poor school children in Quingeo and Cuenca. “The idea of helping others was instilled in me by my parents from a young age,” he says. “They taught me to appreciate what I had and to help those less fortunate. I feel a moral obligation to do this.” 

Luca greets a woman at the restaurant back door.

Luca says he appreciates the contribution of other Cuenca expats, especially those from North America. “There are many people working to make this a better city and I’ve been especially impressed with the gringos who clean up the graffiti. I’ve met many of them who come to the restaurant. There are many needs in the community and all the public-spirited projects help to meet those needs.”

Contrary to popular belief, many of those who receive food are not Venezuelans. “There are many Venezuelans, of course, but there are also many Cuencanos, many older people who have no means of support,” he says. He adds that he never questions the need of those he feeds. “Many of them stand in line two hours so I know they are hungry.”

Ultimately, Luca says his goal goes beyond simply giving food to the hungry. “For those who are able-bodied, my intention is to nourish them so they aren’t hungry and can go look for a job or create products they can sell. Hungry people are focused only on the next meal and I want them to be able to concentrate on something beyond basic necessities.”

For more information about Todos Somos Uno, or about how to make donations, contact Luca through the Pizza Y Focaccia La Matriz Facebook page or call the restaurant at 099 362 8270.

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