An aggressive soundtrack of chattering cars above and the rumble of the subway underneath quickly fades away just a few steps off of Avenida Rivadavia. A plaza painted in yellow and green is busy with the squeaking sounds of basketball players zig zagging across a court and dogs running circles around their owners. Block after block of big houses take over the view in this residential junction of Caballito and Flores. In the distance a small corner cafe appears. It is 10am and Luce is just beginning to wake up.
The mid-morning sun pours through the large windows inside and a godly golden hue brightens three pastry stands stacked with fluffy medialunas and pain au chocolat. I take a seat on the side of the room and am greeted by the dog’s owner, Santiago Marafusche, the owner and head cook, who extends his hand and asks my name. “You aren’t from around here,” he says with a friendly shake. The answer is no. “Thank you for coming.”
Luce opened less than a year ago but it already feels like a long-standing neighborhood relic. From my little table in the corner I watch as people slowly filter in and out. Older gentleman that order small espressos with their newspaper. A trio of elderly women who tease that they’d like el santo—their name for the dog—to come sit at their table. A mailman cranes his neck left and right before he spots a familiar face and pops open the door to shout, hello friend! As the lunch hour approaches doctors, young students and workers with big lap tops search for a table. Today’s daily special is a chicken goulash, no one seems to know what that means but they listen intently and nod their heads trustingly at descriptors like ‘traditional Hungarian soup’.
The restaurant was a long time coming. Marafusche worked as a pastry chef at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and London for nearly 12 years before deciding to break out on his own. “There is a lot of job security when you work for a large hotel and that’s what kept me for so long,” he explains, “But you have to live and breath the hotel. It becomes your life. It isn’t for everyone and I always knew it just wasn’t me.”
Together with his Milanese business partner Gianpaulo Romani they dreamed of opening a small restaurant with simple food far away from the city’s trendy food neighborhoods. “Something barrio.” Balancing the needs of casual eaters in a neighborhood absent of restaurant culture is no easy task, but the pair have wisely filled their menu with homey porteño flavors that encourage neighbors to become regulars without stifling Marafusche’s creativity and appreciation for quality ingredients. “I’ve lost a lot of my pretensions. There is nothing wrong with making a milanesa. But if I’m going to offer one, it’s going to be the best milanesa I can make.”
The menu is evenly split between a handful of breakfast and lunch options. High-quality butter is used for all his breads which are baked in a wood-burning oven. This means that pastries become impossibly plump with a rich buttery texture. A paper thin crunchy outer layer sticks onto the lips and gives way to a pillowy center. The pain au chocolat, quite possibly the best I have eaten in Buenos Aires, has a small slice of dark chocolate that it is barely noticeable to the eye. It leaves just the right touch of sweetness on the tongue. Coffee beans are sourced from Cafe Central and is prepared skillfully—distant from the piping hot and burnt flavor of your average neighborhood cafe.
Eggs are whipped vigorously on demand to make airy scrambled eggs. I ordered them juicy—called babe—they come out creamy and soft. They are accompanied with slices of toasted bread, also made in that wood-burning oven, and toasted to an ideal crisp to scoop up the scramble. Fried pancetta can be added to the side. Yogurt with fresh fruit or buttery ham and cheese tostadas round out the breakfast options.
Daily lunch specials are often the most popular order, like a simple spinach risotto. The rice had a dense texture and little pops of flavor from the spinach, crunchy croutons, dots of cheese and olive oil played with the subtle creamy flavor that anchored the dish down. Sandwiches are another staple and can be ordered throughout the day—there is a simple marinated chicken with avocado, a traditional hamburger topped with mozzarella and caramelized onion and roasted eggplant for the vegetarians. Handmade pasta is topped generously with a deep red bolognese sauce. I enjoyed the milanesa. It is prepared with thick cutlets rather than thin slices of rump steak and is breaded with panko, oatmeal and bread crumbs from their own loaves and served with coleslaw and roasted potatoes. Everything should be accompanied with a simple iced tea with a squeeze of lemon.
I moisten my pain au chocolat with the last bit of warm coffee—it’s enough to soften the chocolate just so—as Marafusche discusses plans to open the restaurant for dinner in a few months time. “Regulars tell us to hurry up with dinner already. People can’t wait.”
Felipe Vallese 1599, Caballito
Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 8:30pm
Sundays, 10am to 4pm