Taking pizza to artisanal heights: Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca specializes in sourdough crusts

Jan 22, 2024 | 0 comments

Pizzas are cooked at 350°C / 660°F.

By Stephen Vargha

Pizza is one of the most popular foods in the world.

It is the most favorite takeaway dish worldwide according to the French producers of Maestrella mozzarella cheese.

Worldwide, it is estimated that pizza generates over $132 billion annually. Every year, people consume around five billion pizzas.

Erica Arizaga serves a couple of pizzas to Cuencano customers.

That includes Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca, on Av. Fray Vicente Solano, whose motto is “Crafted with Mastery.”

Although anyone can make a pizza, baking one is an art. The process requires choosing the right ingredients, mixing them professionally, and cooking them at the right temperature, which is 350°C / 660°F.

“My husband is creative. He imagines flavors for the pizza without tasting them,” said Karen Gálvez, co-owner of Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca. “And they’re so good!”

Breads at the pizzeria get picked over quickly.

And their pizzas have an unusual crust: sourdough. “The open crumb and distinctive hearty taste of sourdough are well suited to bold toppings and well-aged cheeses,” said King Arthur Baking Company, which was founded in Boston in 1790, and is now based in Norwich, Vermont.

“Some people have never tasted sourdough pizza crust before,” said Gálvez. “We try to be very patient with people who have never had it. We explain the process and why it costs more than the usual pizza.”

The sourdough rises before it is cut to be rolled out, topped, and baked.

Sourdough is created through a natural fermentation process involving bacteria and wild yeasts in the environment. Bacteria is primarily responsible for producing organic acids that contribute to sourdough’s flavor and texture. Wild yeast produces carbon dioxide and ethanol during fermentation.

A sourdough starter culture is used to seed fermentation in new dough, and then some is saved for future batches of sourdough.

People are surprised when Gálvez tells them sourdough is good for seven days at room temperature, two weeks in the refrigerator, and almost two months in the freezer.

Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca is located on Av. Fray Vicente Solano, near Tres Puentes.

The unfamiliar pizza crust can be a hard sell.

“It’s really difficult to introduce the sourdough crust to my own family. It’s a new flavor for them,” said Gálvez. “With time, they now understand how good our crust is.”

Everything at Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca is fresh and homemade. It is very hard work to make everything fresh, but it is well worth it, said Gálvez. Before any new ingredient is added to the menu, Gálvez and her husband, Fabian Felez, experiment with them.

“We use fresh tomatoes for our sauces. Our garlic is fresh. We get our flour from Canada as Ecuadorian flour is not as good,” said Gálvez. “We try to import the best Italian wines. We make our limoncello with fresh ingredients. Everything is made at the moment. Everything.”

Fabian Felez is about to put the latest sourdough crust pizza into the oven.

From 2016 to 2019, Gálvez learned her culinary skills attending the 15-year-old San Isidro University Higher Technological Institute. San Isidro has quickly gained a reputation for turning out some of the best and most innovative chefs in Ecuador.

“Fabian was my teacher at the school,” said Gálvez. “He studied in Italy from 2014 to 2016 and at the Basque Culinary Center the following two years.”

Founded in 2011, the Basque Culinary Center, based in San Sebastián, Spain, is a cutting-edge culinary foundation created in part by a group of prominent Basque chefs. It is the second gastronomic university in all Europe.

For her last two years of study, Fabian Felez was Gálvez’s teacher, and soon to be her husband.

Twenty-eight year old Karen Gálvez is the co-owner of Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca.

“I told Fabian that he needed to find something besides teaching at the school to make a living,” said Gálvez. “In 2019, we sold our first bread at a fereria.”

They were open only two months at their Parque Santa Anita location before the Covid pandemic shut the country down. To keep making money, the couple delivered bread to their customers, but that was not enough money.

“Hubby had to go back to San Isidro,” said Gálvez. “And thankfully we opened back up, adding a bakery-coffeeshop on Primero de Mayo in 2021.”

Every baker knows that butter is a key ingredient. “We only use high quality fresh butter,” said Gálvez. “There is only one quality butter: Kiosko. It’s a baking butter which means it does not turn into water.”

There are many unique and popular types of pizzas at Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca.

Primitivo has the butter brought in from Riobamba. There are times it is difficult to get it as the Cuenca bakery is a small customer.

Last November, the couple opened their third place (the pizzeria) next to Edificio Rosenthal, a large residential complex.

Their pizzas are made in the traditional Italian manner. And there is only one size.

“We use olive oil on our pizzas,” said Gálvez. “Old school customers are not used to this style.”

The first known mention of pizza is a 997 CE text requiring that the bishop of Gaeta (southern Italy) be given 12 pizzas every Christmas and Easter.

The pizzeria is spacious and comfortable. A covered outdoor area is planned for eating and live entertainment.

No one knows the exact origin of the word, pizza. The villagers of Gaeta may have taken the word from pinsere, Latin for “to knead with one’s hands.” They could have taken the word from the Greek word pitta, meaning “flatbread.” A third theory is it came from the Lombard word, pizzo, meaning “morsel.”

The first mention of tomato in a European cookbook was in 1694 (Lo Scalco alla Moderna by Antonio Latini). Pizza with mozzarella cheese appeared in cookbooks a century earlier.

In June 1889, pizza took a big leap forward with Raffaele Esposito, the chef and owner of a tavern in Naples, Italy, called, Pizzeria di Pietro e basta così. Considered by some to be the father of modern pizza, it is said Esposito made a pizza in honor of King Umberto 1 of Italy and Queen Margherita.

Only fresh ingredients are used for the pizza. That includes the sauce Fabian Felez is adding to the pizza.

To resemble the colors of the Italian flag – green, white, and red – the pizza was topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. It was reported Queen Margherita immediately fell in love with it, hence the name today: Margherita pizza.

In 1905, Italian immigrants to the United States opened the first pizzeria in New York City. Within a very short time, other pizzerias sprang up across the country.

Its stronghold remains the northeastern U.S., and in 2021, Food & Wine magazine declared New Jersey the “Best Pizza State in America.”

The menu is rather extensive and innovative. Patate E Rosmarino (Mozzarella, potatoes, rosemary, and olive oil) is their most popular pizza.

“Gricia is also very popular,” said Gálvez. “It has four cheeses: Mozzarella, gorgonzola, parmesan, and goat cheese.”

Two other interesting and popular pizzas are Vegan “Salmone” Affumicato, which is tomato, cherry tomato, marinated carrot, onion, dill, and sesame, and Prosciutto E Funghi, with tomato, Mozzarella, prosciutto, and portobello mushrooms.

No doubt the pizzas go way beyond the offerings of the big American pizza chains in Cuenca.

“Cuencanos ask us why we are more expensive than Papa John’s and Domino’s Pizza,” said Gálvez. “When people hear the explanation, they are happy to have pizza here.”

And expats are happy, too.

“Tina told me that she and her husband love to come here because they hate to cook,” said Gálvez. “They come here at least three times a week.”

Though not as large of an offering of baked goods at the pizzeria, there are breads, bagels, and croissants to be had. None of their baked goods have preservatives.

“Residents at the Rosenthal keep telling us they want our breakfasts,” said Gálvez. “We may have to expand our hours as they love our breakfast bagels.”

And expansion is the plan for Gálvez and her husband.

“The goal is to have live music outside. There would be a pergola with lights to make it like Carnaval,” said Gálvez. “Some of our plans are on hold as we have to see what is going to happen in this country.”

Primitivo Pizzeria y Paninoteca, Av. Fray Vicente Solano y Belisario Andrade, Cuenca, 098-312-8473 (WhatsApp), Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., Credit cards are accepted.

Primitivo Artisan Bakery, Rafael Torres Beltrán 3-103 y Víctor León Vivar (Parque Santa Anita), Cuenca, Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Primitivo Artisan Bakery and Coffee, Av. Primero de Mayo 5-54 y Fernando de Aragon, Cuenca, https://www.facebook.com/PrimitivoBakery, Hours are Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  

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.


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