Artisanal South American Cooking
" When you cook you never stop learning.
That's the fascination of it."
- James Beard
Opening a second restaurant a block apart from their first pan-Latin restaurant Zafra, was not a priority for either Maricel E. Presilla or her business partner Clara Chaumont. They were perfectly happy with their small, rambunctious Zafra, a casual pan-Latin cafe. But when a neighboring deli blessed with a much coveted liquor license came up for sale, the partners did not think about it twice and took the plunge. After a year of painstaking renovation, the restaurant opened to the public in April 2004.
The partners named it Cucharamama (CU-CHAH-RAH-MAM-AH), a whimsical name that means, literally, “mother spoon.” For Maricel, who had done research in Cuenca, in the highlands of southern Ecuador, the name was full of meaning. The longest spoon in a highland kitchen, the one women use to stir the ever-present soup, is called “Cucharamama.” This is a multipurpose tool that women use not only for cooking, but to scold misbehaving husbands and unruly children, and to round up cuyes, the small guinea pigs that are a delicacy in the Andes. For Maricel, Cucharamama became a symbol of the women who reign over their kitchens with their spoons and their good cooking, a most fitting icon for a restaurant ruled by women.
As warm and inviting as its sibling Zafra, Cucharamama has a less casual, but still decidedly home-like feel. With its white tablecloths and romantic dim lighting, it is certainly elegant. But it is firmly rooted in Latin America’s unpretentious popular traditions, with a huge wood-burning oven gracing the dining room and lively Latin music playing at all times. On the golden yellow walls, paintings by artist Ismael Espinosa, Presilla's father and popular art objects collected by the owners in South America brighten up the space. The menu is strictly South American composed of carefully selected dishes from Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Brazil, as opposed to Zafra’s more general Cuban and pan-Latin theme.
The heart of the restaurant is the free-standing wood-burning oven hand-crafted by Venezuelan architect and designer Saul Galavís to the exacting specifications of Maricel and Clara. It is the source of many delicious foods like the addictive house flatbread sprinkled with ground Andean peppers and a mixture of Parmigiano Reggiano and Manchego cheeses, served hot with a lightly sweetened prepared butter. Other piping hot offerings from the oven are small pizzas topped with serrano ham, manchego cheese, and a spicy Latin salsa; golden brown Argentinean sausages with sautéed peppers and onions; organic chicken marinated Peruvian style with a mixture of garlic and Andean peppers; and plump Argentinean-style empanadas with a choice of seasoned beef or Spanish Cabrales blue cheese.
Of the extensive menu, the most irresistible attractions are the small Latin dishes–close to forty of them. You can combine them to make a satisfying and nuanced meal. Latin Americans love to nosh and Cucharamama is nosher’s heaven. Cucharamama’s food is free of artifice. Bold flavors, fresh ingredients, and artisanal techniques are at the core of all dishes. This is the home away from home for both Maricel and Clara and their respective families, where they eat most nights and entertain their friends. If an ingredient is not good enough to serve to their families at their home kitchens, you will not find it at Cucharamama. Maricel is fanatic about extra-virgin Spanish olive oil and she uses it lavishly in most dishes. Free-range grass-fed Uruguayan beef is her meat of choice, and most Saturdays find her at the Union Square Greenmarket dickering with local farmers for the freshest and best produce.
Cucharamama’s cocktail selections explore the gamut of emblematic Latin favorites like the lemony Cuban mojito, the Brazilian caipirinha, Peruvian pisco sour and a score of lesser known drinks made with exotic fruits like the Amazonian cupuaçu (an aromatic relative of cacao), and the delightful fruit called naranjilla or lulo in different countries. None of these drinks use extracts or artificial flavorings. All are made with natural fruits. Appetizers and a full menu are served at the bar. The wine list is concise yet comprehensive and composed primarily of South American and Spanish wines. Maricel, who has traveled extensively through the wine regions of Latin America, has selected wines that match the rich complexity of South American food. In recognition for her important work interpreting the foods of South America, Chef Maricel Presilla was named Best Chef Mid-Atlantic by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, the first NJ female chef to have received such distinction.
Open for dinner seven days a week and for Sunday brunch, Cucharamama is the place to meet friends in a convivial, relaxed atmosphere full of grace and Latin character. During the summer there is also outdoor seating. The restaurant is available for large private parties on Mondays and during the day from Monday thru Saturday.