By Stephen Vargha
Expats who have lived in Cuenca for several years are telling Kelbert Bortone, “Welcome home.”
“People were very happy when they found out I had opened a restaurant,” said Bortone. “It’s so good to see my friends again.”
Bortone is talking about Nómadas Bistró, which opened on Calle Larga at Padre Aguirre at the beginning of February. Meaning nomads, it is an appropriate name for Bortone and his wife, Mariana Gonzalez, who are both Venezuelan.
The two met by happenstance. “We met at Simón Bolívar International Airport in October 2003, going to Margarita Island,” said Bortone. “When I saw her, there was a lot of confusion at the gate, and I asked her what was going on.”
Margarita Island is located in the Caribbean Sea just off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. It is often nicknamed the “Pearl of the Caribbean.”
The mass confusion subsided enough that both got on the short flight to the island. “My father picked me up at the airport and we took Mariana to her home in Porlamar,” said Bortone. “I asked for her phone number. I played it cool and called her later.”
Playing it cool did not work at first. “I called Mariana and told her that I had a pregnant Golden Retriever,” said Bortone. “I told Mariana that if she was passing by where I was trying to find homes for the puppies, she could help out.”
After that didn’t work out, Bortone pulled out something special from his flight from Caracas to Margarita Island. “I had written a poem on my boarding pass, but I thought it was corny, so I decided to give it to her later,” Bortone said. “After making the dog offer several times, I sent Mariana the poem, and she agreed to meet me.”
Three months later, they were married. Bortone and Gonzalez had two children while living on Margarita Island before flying to Cuenca in 2015.
“I visited for a week in Cuenca, and I liked it. Then I went to Quito for a week, and I liked it,” said Bortone. “After my visit to both cities, I told my wife that Cuenca was for us.”
Nicolás Maduro was the president of Venezuela since 2013. “The president didn’t ruin my life,” said Bortone. “But the president ruined our country, so we had to move to Cuenca.”
Bortone and Gonzalez packed up and took their baking skills to Cuenca. “We had an artisan bakery on Margarita Island,” said Bortone. “We decided to open up a bakery in Cuenca. It was called, Bread by Bike.”
“Marianna has a gift for baking. Making bread is hard as you have to get up early to make it,” said Bortone. “People were telling her it was the best bread in the city.”
Expats greatly appreciate the breads that were closer to what they were used to in the U.S. and Canada. “I ended up speaking more English because more of our customers were expats,” said Bortone.
All of the bread was made in a special kitchen in their home. And all of their sales were made from the bicycle Bortone rode. “I was always carrying bread in my baskets on my bike,” said Bortone.
Riding around El Centro with his bread got the attention of an Ecuadorian. “A woman saw me and asked me to check her building out,” said Bortone. “She said it was not for rent, but I could set up my bakery in her building.”
Bortone said the woman’s home on Calle Larga was abandoned. Grass was growing everywhere and some of it was over a meter high. One of the walls had collapsed, and there was huge hole in the middle of the open courtyard.
“She wanted to renovate the patrimonial building,” said Bortone. “But we moved to Amsterdam in late-2021.”
Bortone, his wife, and children moved to the Netherlands because a friend of his, who he met 20 years before in Venezuela, invited the family to his hometown. They only stayed a year as the Dutch weather was too cold and wet for them.
The offer by the owner of the abandoned building was still on the table so Bortone and Gonzalez set up shop in it. The wall was repaired; the giant hole was filled in and the grass was removed for a wood floor.
In the entryway, maps from around the world are plastered to the wall. “I love maps,” said Bortone. “My wife would not let me hang maps up in our home, so I have hung them in the restaurant.”
And Bortone is very happy to add your map to his cartographic display of the world.
On February 2, Nómadas Bistró opened. “We hired a guy from Panama,” said Bortone. “He stayed with us before we opened the restaurant.”
Another hire lived the first ten years of her life in Santa Barbara, California before moving with her mother to Cuenca in 2016. “I came here on opening day,” said Rosie Holmes. “My mother told me to see if they could use a waitress.”
It worked as Bortone asked her if she would like to work at the restaurant.
It is not surprising that the menu, that is in both Spanish and English, has a lot of items from their homeland. “We have arepas because we are from Venezuela,” said Bortone. “It’s not fancy, but it’s very good.”
Besides arepas, which are cornmeal patties that are stuffed with beans, avocado, and cheese, a spear of bread dough stuffed with queso blanco is a very popular item on the menu.
“Tequeños is like a snack in Venezuela, said Bortone. “If you don’t have Tequeños in Venezuela, you are not going to survive.”
Open seven hours every day from Tuesday through Sunday, Nómadas Bistró serves breakfast for the entire time. “Get breakfast anytime of the day you want,” said Bortone. “If you want Tequeños for breakfast, we can do that, too.”
Bortone wants his restaurant to be a place for everyone. “It’s a family business,” said Bortone. “When you come to my restaurant, it is like coming to my home.”
Though only open a month, Bortone is trying to make it a place for more than food. He wants Nómadas Bistró to be a destination for a variety of things.
“We are trying to do live events; we want to support the artists,” said Bortone. That includes the local group, Northern Roots, being its first musical performance. Bortone said the restaurant can seat up to 40 people plus the band.
Yoga and breakfast may be in the near future. And next month, Nómadas Bistró will be hosting something not usually found in Ecuador.
“In April, we are going to have a tea tasting,” said Bortone. “It will be hosted by a British woman.”
Everyone, be it expats, Cuencanos, or visitors to the city, is welcomed at Nómadas Bistró. Many are personally greeted by Bortone as he goes table to table.
Making it more special is the extra touch Bortone does. “I like to learn everyone’s names,” said Bortone.
Already Bortone is making a name for himself.
And there is a good chance he will be knowing your name soon.
Nómadas Bistró, Calle Larga 10-7 y Padre Aguirre, Cuenca, 096-298-6352, https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100089647846018, Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new 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.