Argentina may physically be the largest Spanish-speaking country in Latin America and the eighth-largest country in the world, but its culture --and its food-- are virtual mysteries to most Americans.
The country's beginnings, its civil wars and its waves of European immigrants (particularly from Italy and Spain) parallel those of the United States in many ways. Its beef consumption is most notable: on a per capita basis, Argentines eat 33% more red meat than does the typical American carnivore each year.
With that in mind, the Hyde Park restaurant Alfio's Buon Cibo (Italian for: Alfio's Good Food), honors the country's dominant Italian, Spanish and beef-loving culture in an inspiring --and comfortably familiar-- menu.
Alfio's resides in the former site of Poco a Poco, a tapas restaurant, and Red, an upscale steakhouse. It's named after the head chef, Alfio Gulisano, an Italian-American raised in Buenos Aires.
The menu is American-friendly not because it's trying to cater to the U.S. palate, but because so much of the cuisine is already recognizable and endeared to most (North) Americans. There are meat, cheese and veggie-stuffed empanadas; bruschetta; raviolis, risottos and linguinis; and grilled steak, lamb and various seafood.
We stopped in on a weeknight for dinner, past the front bar and into the main dining room of dark woods and a soft gold color palette, a possible nod to the "Sun of May," Argentina's national emblem. For starters, we chose the Empanada Trio, fried Argentine pastries stuffed with spicy beef, spinach and cheese and prosciutto with roasted peppers and mozzarella. A fourth, minced pork empanada was the day's special, so we added it to our meal.
The empanadas arrived along with a side of a mayonnaise/mango salad. The empanadas I'm familiar with typically have distinctive, decorative crimped edges, but these lacked such designs. But what they lacked in artistry, they made up for in flavor, each with its own distinct profile. The cheesy, gooey combination of the spinach and cheese empanada made it a hit, but my hands-down favorite was the assertive one-two punch of the prosciutto with roasted peppers variant.
Next came my side of cioppino, a tomatoey, seafood stew. I found it harbored too strong a fish odor, and any small bits of seafood were lost in the sea of salty broth. The first bite was my favorite, triggering pleasant childhood memories of eating Manhattan clam chowder.
My girlfriend struggled over choosing the Five Cheese Angus Ravioli and the Wild Mushroom Ravioli entrees, but our pleasant and attentive server said she could split the order into a smaller portion of each. The combination arrived on a plate so designed, and both my girlfriend and I agreed that the tomato, arugula and roasted red pepper flavors managed to make the dishes seem light and cleanly refreshing despite their cream sauces.
I choose the Short Rib Ravioli, with braised veal short rib topped with a creamy truffle oil and mushroom Marsala sauce. The flavors were expectedly heavy, rich and delicious, and I labored to finish only half the entree. The short rib itself got somewhat lost in the strong Marsala, but I appreciated the pleasing texture of the homemade ravioli.
For dessert we choose a slice of a layered chocolate and mascarpone cake with a berry sauce, as well as an apple/quince cobbler topped with a scoop of homemade cinnamon gelato. Quinces are a popular pear-like fruit in Argentina, pairing perfectly with the apple. Both desserts made for a stunning end to a fine meal.
Alfio's offers a mouthwatering melting pot of Argentine flavors with which patrons will feel right at home.