By Sylvan Hardy
Ten years ago, there were only three restaurants on Cuenca’s Parque Calderon, with most diners opting for comida tipica at the venerable Raymipampa, next to the cathedral.
Things have changed.
With the opening of Calle Santa Ana, the alleyway between the cathedral and San Luis Seminary in 2017, and the decision of the Catholic Diocese to convert the seminary to commercial space, there has been veritable explosion of dining options on the plaza. In addition to those on the alleyway and in the seminary, the Casa del Parque hosts eight restaurants and bars on the opposite side of the park.
The developing dining scene in the city center did not go unnoticed by Cuenca’s first family of restaurateurs, the Vintimillas and their Sociedad Gourmet. “I think what’s happening was inevitable as Cuenca grows and becomes more sophisticated,” says Cornelio Vintimilla, CEO of Sociedad Gourmet, which operates nine restaurants and four hotels in Cuenca and Guayaquil. “Parque Calderon is the heart and soul of the city and it was only a matter of time before it attracted more high quality dining choices.”
Vintimilla and Sociedad Gourmet made the decision to get in on the Calderon action three years ago when they began planning what is arguably the crowning achievement of dining on the park: Negroni. “We began talking to the owner of the building and the owners of Vatex, the department store that rents it,” he said. “What we were interested in was the rooftop, which was unoccupied.”
One of Sociedad Gourmet’s first and probably best decisions was to make Giovanny Gonzalez general manger of the new project, involving him in the planning and design. Gonzalez has spent much of his career with Sociadad Gourmet, for years managing the Santa Lucia Hotel restaurant before developing and managing Cafe del Museo behind the Remigio Crespo Museum on Calle Larga.
Gonazalez oversaw the renovation of what he called the “pigeon house” — “it was where all the pigeons in Parque Calderon slept at night,” he said — on Vatex’s fifth floor and the installation of a glass-sided elevator in the back of the store that whisks customers up to the restaurant.
Beginning its second year of operation in March, Gonzalez is pleased with Negroni’s success. “We wanted to create a comfortable, upscale atmosphere where people could meet and have fun, where they can enjoy great food and drinks. We wanted it to be a place for special occasions. We also wanted to give our customers great views of the city. I believe we’ve succeeded.”
He added that success has come despite Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, which have meant frequent repositioning of tables as well as changing employee safety requirements.
The seating at Negroni is divided between indoor and outdoor areas although most dinners, weather permitting, prefer the outside space for the fresh air and views.
According to Gonazlez, Negroni’s dining menu emphasizes quality over quantity, with a decidedly continental flare. “It is a full menu but it isn’t too complicated,” he says. “This way we don’t get overextended and we can maintain consistent quality.”
Opening daily at 10 a.m., Negroni offers three choices of Eggs Benedict for breakfast among the six main course choices. Lunch and dinner choices include steak, seafood, chicken, lamb and vegetarian options. On several restaurant review websites, the steak and salmon fuertes have been called the best in Cuenca.
There’s a well-rounded offering of sandwiches and appetizers as well. Among them are burgers, both beef and veggie, club sandwiches, prosiutto bruschetta and a seafood sampler. There’s an impressive dessert menu as well.
To see the full Negroni menu, click here.
Negroni’s drink menu is, without doubt, the most extensive in town. The namesake Negroni cocktail comes in five variations, all of which, Gonzalez insists, would meet the approval of Count de Negroni, the inventor of the drink. The bar has a full lineup of top shelf liquors, some of which are unavailable anywhere else in Cuenca.
The success of the Cuenca Negroni prompted Sociadad Gourmet to open a second, much larger, edition in Guayaquil. The 250-seat downtown Negroni commands an even loftier view than Cuenca’s, occupying the 35th floor of the Point Building in the city’s Ciudad del Río development. “It only opened in October but it’s packed every day and is gaining the reputation as the best place to eat in the city,” Vintimilla says. In addition to the new Negroni, there are three other Sociadad Gourmet resaturants in Guayaquil, including the popular Lola’s in Samborondón.
Coming soon to Cuenca: Rooftop margaritas and mariachis
If Guayaquil is taking the Negroni cue from Cuenca, Gonzalez says Sociedad Gourmet is borrowing a Mexican theme from Guayaquil. “We plan to open another rooftop restaurant very soon,” he says. “There’s a very popular Mexican restaurant in Guayaquil and we plan to bring the concept to Cuenca. It will have a mariachi house band and a full menu of Mexican food and drinks. Like Negroni, it will be all about quality dining and offering people a good time.”
The new restaurant will be around the corner from Negroni, on Benigno Malo. According to Gonzalez, all the permits have been approved by the city and the restaurant could open as soon as July or August.
Negroni Cuenca: Calle Simon Bolivar 8-44 and Benigno Malo, on the 5th floor terraza of the Vatex department store; Hours: 10 a.m.to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; Tel: 098 167 4745; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; (reservations are recommended)