Why you should care
Because a communist country is making strides — and some pretty good pasta.
Americans go to Havana to smoke cigars, drink rum, dance in the streets, tool around in old cars, and because—even despite this week’s big diplomatic news— they still legally can’t. But to eat? Not so much.
As things continue to shift in U.S-Cuba relations, though, culinary-minded travelers (and soon-to-be Havana-based American embassy ambassadors and staffers) take note: Havana does have good food, if you know where to find it, thanks to limited economic reforms over the last few years. We’re not talking Paris-level proportions, here (not even Pittsburgh) … but paladares. Real-deal, family-run restaurants in people’s homes, driveways, garages, rooftop gardens — with half-equipped kitchens that go beyond the traditional pork, rice and beans fare, turning out sushi, vindaloo, thin-crust pizza.
Over the last few years, new paladares have been popping up all around Havana. Unlike the country’s all too similar state-run restaurants — despite the government’s efforts to differentiate them — these are places with an actual sense of place. That serve food made by passionate cooks. And staffed by servers who care, not bored-stiff state employees who get paid the piddling same whether or not they remember your order.
During a two-week trip to Cuba, I ate my way around Havana’s top paladares (and suffered through leathery pork and tasteless chicken at a few state-run places, too). I had the best ropa vieja on the outdoor terrace at Atelier. I ate what was purportedly the city’s best pizza at La Carboncita — which, on the Saturday night I was there, appeared to be a hot date spot for old white expat men and their younger, darker, skinnier ladies, in skirts that barely covered their butts. And my most memorable mojito at Le Chansonnier paired with roasted duck and a lovely eggplant and tomato terrine (organic of course, as is all produce in Cuba; what farmer can afford chemicals?).
But my favorite meal was at a newly opened, open-air paladar, hidden out of the way, down a dark, quiet residential street in the Playa, one of the city’s “grandest” suburbs. La Corte del Principe is owned by a 60-something man named Sergio, an Italian businessman who moved here decades ago “for adventure, the exotic” he’d told me in Spanish, as his toddler son bounded in to give him a hug. “I wanted to open a trattoria, a place that felt like home,” he’d said, sitting at one of the 15 or so tables covered in a red-and-white-checkered cloth, beneath a leafy trellis.
It comes close: baskets of eggplant and tomatoes (and pineapple) greet you at the entrance; bottles of (Chilean) wine line the shelves; the pasta is handmade (but sometimes supplemented with Barilla). A lone, pathetic-looking string of garlic hangs in the decidedly nongourmet kitchen. And the freshly grated Parmesan? Straight from the Walmart in Cancun, where Sergio makes occasional runs to stock up on staples.
But Sergio himself is straight-up Italian. Dressed in white slacks and a pink polo shirt (collar up), cigarette dangling, he works the room, heartily welcoming diners from all over the world and suggesting house specialties. We accept his recommendations: prosciutto crudo olio e parmigiano; parmigiana di melanzane; bucatini amatriciana; and tagliatelle gamberi y zucchini — a delicate tangle of freshly made pasta and vegetables picked that morning at Havana’s farmers’ market.
I mean, it was no Locanda or Cotogna or La Ciccia or any of my favorite San Francisco pasta spots, but it was the best of Havana. And perhaps the closest most Cubans will ever get to Italy. But maybe now, they’ll actually be able to afford to eat there.
9na esq. 74, Playa, Havana, Cuba 11300, +53 24 125140