Marea’s Pizzeria maintains unique Cuencano and Argentine baking traditions
By Liam Higgins
If you’re walking down Calle Hermano Miguel, just after it begins at Calle Larga, and you happen to be on the west side of the street, you’ll run into Marea Pizzeria and Bar. Literally. The restaurant blocks the sidewalk, extending right up to the curb.
To get past it, you need to walk in the street – don’t forget to check for the traffic that just made the turn from Calle Larga. You also need to check for traffic as you enter and exit Marea’s. Don’t ask why. It’s a Cuenca thing.
One of Marea’s owners, Carlos Andrade, says he hasn’t lost a customer yet to traffic as far as he knows. “I expect them to be careful,” he says.
Ingress and egress are not the only oddities about Marea’s. In a city with an ever-growing choice of Italian pizzerias, it serves Argentinian-style pizza, as well as other Argentinian dishes.
Marea’s is actually two restaurants in one. El Mentidero Café occupies one side of the space, operating the huge earthen oven that not only produces the pizzas, but also bakes a variety of breads. If you look in the front window to the right of the restaurant (while you also check for north-bound traffic) you’ll see a rack of freshly baked rolls, croissants, and loaves, white and integral, in the ciabatta, focaccia, and criollitos styles.
Besides selling bread to passersby, Andrade says he has a number of expat customers who have standing daily and weekly orders.
Although Andrade is from Cuenca, he spent years living in Cordova, Argentina, where he learned the local style of bread-making. “It is really unique in Latin America,” he says. “Baking on the stone surface of a wood oven, using the traditional recipes, makes the difference. For pizza, the key is the thinness of the bread as well as the flavor and when you combine this with a different variety of ingredients, you get an Argentinian pizza.”
Cuenca’s is not the only Marea’s. The first one opened 15 years ago on the coast in Montanita – hence the name – and has been the favorite pizzeria among the town’s international surfer and backpacker crowd ever since. “It has been very popular there and people were asking us why not open one in Cuenca, so we did,” says Andrade.
Although you can order traditional pizza meat toppings at Marea’s, the emphasis is on vegetables, spices, fruits and cheeses. Basil, oregano, garlic, dried tomatoes, parsley, onions, mushrooms, garlic and figs are the most popular toppings. If you want a break from the standard mozzarella, try a pizza with blue cheese. In fact, one of the favorite specialty pizzas at Marea’s is the blue cheese and fig, perfected by Andrade during his time in Argentina.
Besides standard pizzas, which start under $7 for a two-person, four-slice version, you can order specialty pizzas, such as the fig and blue cheese, starting at $11.75.
In addition to pizzas, Marea’s offers traditional Italian – with an Argentine twist – choices of Lasagña, Paperdelle, and Raviolón at $11. There also are the Argentine baked standards of beef, potatoes and vegetables (Milanga Marea) and beef with cheese and homemade tomato sauce (Milganga Neapolitana) for $10 and $12. They also serve three varieties of Argentine empanadas at $1.50 each.
In addition to the food, Andrade focuses on creating a comfortable atmosphere that encourages customers to sit a spell and relax with friends. “This is as important as the food for me. I want this to be refuge, a place where people feel they can stay and feel welcome,” he says. “If you’re by yourself, come read a book or your Kindle, surf the Internet on the Wifi, enjoy your favorite private pastimes. If you’re with friends, relax and share a good time.”
Marea’s cozy interior fits well with Andrade’s plans, and tables are filled with both Cuencanos and expats from breakfast to until late-night pizzas.
Marea’s has a full bar with a good selection of wines, mostly Argentine, as well as beer, both the standards and artesanal.
If you need another inducement, beyond the food and atmosphere, to try out Marea’s, the historic building and location hold plenty of appeal. The building was the tax collection office for Cuenca through the 1800s into the early 20th century.
More important for Andrade is the restaurant’s location in Cuenca’s Todo Santos neighborhood. The area has a bread-making tradition dating back to the late 16th century that has been maintained by nuns at the Todos Santos convent, two blocks away.
“I feel like we’re part of history here,” Andrade says. “I feel an obligation to maintain the tradition and maintain a level of high quality baking.”
Marea Pizzeria and El Mentidero Café is on Calle Hermano Miguel between Calle Larga and Honorato Vazquez. Hours (Marea): Monday to Friday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hours (El Mentidero Café): Daily for breakfast and lunch and bread purchases. Phone: 2827827; E-mail: email@example.com