MANGIA! ITALIAN FOOD IN MEXICO CITY

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Updated September 17, 2016; originally published in The News Mexico

As a boy growing up in New York’s Little Italy, my mother would give me a dollar and send me down the block for spaghetti and meatballs at a restaurant run by an old couple from Sicily. “Mangia tutti” the nonna would admonish as the delectable plate sat steaming in front of me. We shopped for cheese and pastries on Bleeker Street, fresh pasta on Houston Street. And there was the legendary slice of New York pizza, which combined the best of Naples and Brooklyn. Those food memories are hard to recreate. Since then I’ve honed my knowledge of cucina italiana on various trips to Italy, and worked my way through some of the best Italian cookbooks, such as Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian and the Silver Spoon.

Though there’s been an Italian community in Mexico since the 19th century, it has never been large. The 2000 census reported about 4000 Italian nationals residing here, although there are many more descendants from the old country. Besides the ubiquitous presence of pizza, the most famous culinary contribution of Italy to Mexico is the torta, the beloved sandwich based on panino (an Italian roll) and supposedly made popular by turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants.

Today, with growing interest in international cuisine and an increasingly sophisticated public, there’s a wide range of places to eat, from humble pizzerias to pricy northern Italian ristorantes. And the availability of good ingredients is inspiring to any home cook.

 

 

italianfoodmexicocity-2Casa D’Italia is a typical trattoria, looking much like those found all over Italy, red checkered tablecloths and all. It was conceived 20 years ago by gregarious chef and owner, Luigi Cesarano Vitiello, who hails from Naples. The compact space, housing only 12 tables, has changed very little over the years. Luigi continues to preside over his crowd of demanding regulars, many of whom live in nearby Edificio Condesa, an old complex famed for its artsy occupants and telenovela-like scandals. The menu, which for a change does NOT include pizzas, offers standard dishes from different parts of Italy. Several carpaccii (or sliced raw meat) antipasti, a minestrone, the classic stracciatella (beef broth thickened with egg), and crema di funghi (mushroom) make good starters. Pastas include a delectable fettucine alla Val D’Orcia, with shrimps, arugula and cream, and the simple spaghetti alle noci, with a “sauce “of walnuts, chili, parsley and garlic. Secondi (main dishes) comprise the classic Saltimbocca alla Romana, thin veal scallops with ham in a white wine sauce perfumed with sage. Gamberini al Marsala is another good choice – fat shrimp are sweetened with a little of that famous Sicilian wine. But be sure to ask for seasonal specialties as they do not appear on the menu. I always check to see if mussels are in – Luigi’s zuppa di cozze is the best. He also does an excellent rack of lamb, and will produce just about any dish you like if the ingredients are available. There’s a good selection of Italian wines, though few in the budget range. Do reserve a table as Casa D’Italia fills up fast.

Casa D’Italia
Agustín Melgar 6, Condesa
Tel 5286-2021
Open Monday-Saturday 1:30PM-12AM
Average per person with wine $300 pesos
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Shopping
Nowadays one can find almost any imported ingredient in Mexico; the only problem for the Italian home cook is acquiring certain fresh items which are rarely seen here, or only available in season. Good quality squid, clams and mussels, tender veal, true Italian sausage can be scarce. But fresh and aged cheeses, both national and imported are increasingly available, as are high quality hams and salamis.

Your local supermarket will likely offer imported Arborio rice for risotto, polenta and Italian pastas (I look for Di Cecco brand, recommended by an Italian friend). Vegetables used in Italian cooking are also becoming common. In my local tianguis (Tuesdays on calle Pachuca in the Condesa) I can sometimes find two kinds of arugula as well as fennel bulbs.

The basil problem: Fresh basil (called albahaca in Spanish) is sold all over Mexico and usually used as an herbal remedy. The variety here, however, has little to do with the Italian kind – the flavor is minty and more reminiscent of Thai basil. I have occasionally seen “real” basil sold in packages at the Superama. A stand in the Mercado San Juan often offers the real thing. Otherwise, your only option is to grow your own from seeds– not hard to do in a flowerpot or window box.

The Menu
San Miguel de Allende resident Margharita Failoni, a curator of contemporary art, lived for years in Rome with her husband Claudio. The following recipe is one she picked up there and it’s truly amazing. Although it uses surprisingly few ingredients and no meat stock, it’s surprisingly rich and hearty – a soup you can’t refuse.

Marge Failoni’s Amazing Soup from Rome
(serves 4)

2 large cloves of garlic, sliced thin
one large bunch of zucchini flowers (flores de calabaza), yellow part only
a fistful of swiss chard (acelgas), without stems
6 – 8 very ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped (or use ½ large can whole Italian tomatoes)
a fistful of Italian basil (albahaca) leaves
4 cups water

Put everything in a pot with a very light sprinkling of salt. Cover and simmer until all the vegetables are cooked. Serve at room temperature with a light drizzle of good olive oil. Serve with bruschetta.
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Mercado San Juan
Calle Ernesto Pugibet, centro
This is the best market in the city to find fresh produce and imported Italian cheeses such as Parmesan, pecorino, fontina, mozzarella and ricotta (go to Gastronomica San Juan, stall no.162, and its neighbor La Jersey around the corner). Seafood: mussels and calamares are occasionally available fresh. In the meat section, stands 44-46 sell veal scaloppini and ossobuco ready to cook.

Benepasta
Ayuntamiento 12, centro
Fresa 142, Ciudad Satélite
These stores sell dried pastas in many unusual shapes, as well as semolina (for making fresh pasta) and fresh ravioli. The original store is around the corner from the aforementioned Mercado San Juan.

Partimar Gastronomia Italiana
Rosas Moreno 32 (near Ribera San Cosme) San Rafael
Tel. 5566-3544/5566-3058
Open Monday-Friday 10-7, Saturday 10-2
This large shop is located in the old working class neighborhood of San Rafael, only a few blocks from the San Cosme metro stop. It’s a good source for all kinds of packaged products, oils and vinegars, as well as cheeses and meats. They have a good selection of reasonably priced Italian wines. Several pasta machines are for sale here too. One-day classes are offered periodically – call for information.

Societá Dante Alighieri
Marsella 39, Zona Rosa
Tel. 5511-5257 / 5511-2953
www.dantealighieri.com.mx
This language school also offers Italian cooking classes.

Instituto Italiano di Cultura
Francisco Sosa 77, Coyoacán
tel. 5554-0044
www.iicmessico.esteri.it/IIC_Messico
This institution, located in a beautiful old mansion, has a small food store and offers cooking classes, as well a a host of cultural events – get on their email list.

Centro Gourmet Vittorio
Prol. Bosques de Reforma 1371, Lomas
Tel. 5251-3186
This is a store specializing in all kinds of fresh pasta as well as imported cheeses and gourmet
products. See their website: www.vittorio.com.mx.
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MORE RESTAURANTS:
Besides Casa D’Italia and Bellaria, the following are worth trying:

Alfredo di Roma
Campos Eliseos 218 polanco; Tel. 5327-7700
Elegant and authentic

Fiesole
Av. del Parque. 2 (entrance on Av. Revolución), San Angel; Tel. 5663-1913 also at Masaryk 192, Polanco
Once recommended by my Italian teacher Elvis (his real name) as his favorite place in Mexico City.

L’osteria Becco
Goldsmith 103, Polanco; Tel. 5282 1059
It’s another Polanco venue favored by an Italian friend.

Non Solo Pannino
Calle Orizaba, Plaza Luís Cabrera, between
Zacatecas and Guanajuato, Roma
Tel: 3096-5128
They offer pannini and good salads with a view of pretty Parque Luis Cabrera.

Osteria Ocho ( is a good, homey, option in Condesa/Roma; see post)

Ricerca Gelateria, Avenida Toluca 1151, Colonia Olivar de los Padres (for the best gelato in the city, as well as great pastas and pizzas – see post)

See post on the extraordinary new Sartoria 

Rosetta (This renowned venue is veering towards Modern Mexican but still offers exquisite Italian classics; see post)

Trattoria della Casanuova,
Av. de la Paz 40, San Angel tel 5616-2288
This simple and friendly place does excellent pastas, a very good bakery downstairs and Rosemary Clooney on the sound system.

PIZZA:

Pizzas Ummo
in side the Mercado Roma, Querétaro 225, Roma
Ummo’s pizzas, as the name implies, are infused with smoke and are not only the best but the most economical pizzas in the city. Ummo delivers; call: 55 5264 2947

A deep dish pie at Ummo in Mercado Roma

Masaccio
Masaryk 48, Polanco; Tel. 5531-6828
I find their main dishes dissapointing but the brick oven pizza is excellent.

Quilmes
Alfonso Reyes 193, CondesaIt’s Argentine – the pizzas are hearty and salads copious.

50 Friends
Cadereyta 19 corner Tamaulipas, Condesa
Many friends, if not 50, like the pies here.

See Fiesole  above.

This article has previously been published, in part in The News Mexico City; photos by Rodrigo Oropeza

READER’S COMMENTS:

Jorge March 18, 2009
Good article!!! I was wondering, Do you know any restaurants in Mexico City that offer New York or Chicago style pizzas?
I’ve been on a quest for the best pizza in mexico city but I still haven’t found anything worth mentioning… do you have any suggestions?

Nicholas Gilman March 20, 2009
Sorry the best New York and Chicago pizzas are in New York and Chicago…..

Shayne April 1, 2009
I have been lucky and I found real basil at Superama but I really want to grow my own and I have not yet been able to find seeds…I am hoping I do this week.
Jorge, I have not found a good pizza in Mexico Either (except in my kitchen) an ok pizza at Costco but I find that the pizzas (as with everything) is not baked long enough so if you can find a place that backes longer you may have better luck…or I guess you will have to come over and try mine. 🙂
Nick – Chicago style all the way!!

Anonymous November 16, 2009
Hello there,
I’d suggest pizza at Il Punto in Polanco, off of Masaryk Ave, costly but worthy every now and then. Otherwise there’s Giacovanni’s, particuarly the one in Interlomas, a little more affordable.

Anonymous December 10, 2009
Hello, I am looking for a great fresh turkey and ham to cook for Christmas and no idea where to go for best available produce. (Or if anybody knows of a top shelf service who will bring teh whole works to my house. Live in Coyoacan). Thanks for suggestions.. Orla

Nicholas Gilman December 10, 2009
Fabulous fresh turkeys (as well as geese, pintadas, ducks, etc., are available at the Mercado San Juan in the centro. (c/Ernesto Pugibet,one block south of Ayuntamiento.)

Eduardo September 4, 2010
Try Pequeña Italia, near across from small alley from Boliche Insurgentes.

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About The Author

Nicholas Gilman is a food writer based in Mexico City; he’s author of Good Food in Mexico CIty: Food Stalls, Fondas, Fine Dining.