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76 Years of Argentinian Pizza Expertise at El Cuartito

March 13, 2013

In tribute to today's annoucement of a new Argentinian Pope, here is my review of one of Buenos Aires' oldest and best pizza joints which I visited in 2010, El Cuartito.

As I planned my trip to Argentina, I imagined myself eating succulent, juicy steaks from morning ’til night. Sadly, the reality of traveling to another country to film a TV show like Wipeout Canada meant that much of my time was spent eating a quick bite on set covered in mud, or searching for any open restaurant late in the evening after returning from filming.

It was in such a mood that our group of Wipeout crazies set forth in search of food on the streets of Buenos Aires one evening. We’d been pointed in the direction of a local pizza place by our hotel staff and not figuring we had much to lose, off we went, not knowing we were about to experience a traditional Argentina pizza experience, 76 years in the making.

El Cuartito, which loosely translates to “Little Room”, is actually a good sized restaurant with a large pick-up counter and simple table and chair seating under masses of old sports paraphernalia. Although Argentina has an excellent reputation for its steaks, there is also a very prevalent Italian cuisine culture, stemming from the large influx of Italian immigrants to the country from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.

Located in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires, El Cuartito has been around since 1934 and the crotchety waiters look like they’ve been working there since it opened, only adding to the charming ambiance. They pleasantly tolerated our brutalized attempts at ordering in very broken Spanish and had bottles of Quilmes (the Argentinian equivalent to Budweiser, not too bad) at our table before we knew it.

You have the choice of ordering pizza by the pie or by the slice, as my vegetarian friend Nathan chose with his sweet pepper-topped slices above. A side note on this – Argentina can be a cruel country to find sustenance if you’re forgoing meat and we had numerous amusing encounters trying convince servers not to bring meat to a vegetarian. But not so in El Cuartito, our server immediately replaced the meat slice he had accidentally brought out with one that was actually meat-free.

The rest of us split two pies between the six of us and had more than enough to go around. The Ham Napolitan with ham, fresh tomatoes, green Argentinian olives, mozzarella and Provenzal (a topping made from garlic, parsley and Parmesan) was absolutely delicious. Light, springy crust with a great crunch, a mound of oozing cheese and those heavenly green olives, my first experience tasting Argentinian grown and cured olives.

 Our second pie was the Calabrian, which I was hard-pressed to get a picture of before we completely dove into it. The same basic toppings as our other pie, with the tomato slices, Provenzal topping and black Argentinian olives this time. The reason I couldn’t resist trying this pie was its description on the menu of including ‘Calabrian Sousagge Slices,’ hitting both my love of hilarious international menu typos and my curiosity about trying new things.

Turns out the ‘sousagge’ was an interesting pork sausage from Southern Italy’s Calabria region, similar to a calabrese, but with a heavier, thicker flavour and somewhat oily mouth feel. We agreed that it might be an acquired taste on a pizza after we had all had a slice, and moved back to the Ham Napolitan, but that didn’t stop me from eating all those tasty olives off the top of the pie. So good!

When we tried to return to El Cuartito again the next evening, we found it so packed with locals that the line spread down the street. Whole families stood together on the street, chatting and laughing as they waited their turn for a slice of traditional Buenos Aires pizza. Not much has changed in 75 years here, and that’s what makes it perfect.

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