By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Mexico City’s blue-collar neighborhood of Santa María la Ribera is not exactly known for its five-star restaurants and upscale dining.
So when I was invited to a group luncheon there at a little Italian restaurant I had never heard of last week, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of haute cuisine.
Boy, was I wrong.
The restaurant, María 138, is owned and operated by a native Sicilian, Cristina Maria Cialona, who moved to Mexico when she was three years old, along with her parents and siblings, and who, with the help of her mother, Antonietta di Pasquale, opened the little trattoria five and a half years ago, after having first tried her hand (unsuccessfully) at running an art gallery and a small European bakery.
The art studio is now long gone, but the bakery is still there and booming, right next door to the restaurant (and it produces all the bread served at María 138).
At first glance, María 138 is not particularly alluring, although it definitely has an upbeat charm.
The premises are small, with mostly garden seating composed of rustic cast iron tables and chairs scattered about an open-air courtyard. Haphazardly positioned oversized umbrellas mercifully provide shelter from the sun.
There are flowers and plants everywhere, and a recurring theme of lemon yellow, eggshell white and metallic black prevails.
The sole inside dining room has three unlinened tables with mismatched wooden chairs and an undeniable down-home décor, with a 19th century oak buffet covered with yellow floral arrangements on one end, plants suspended in rustic tin water pales, discreet black-and-white etchings on the pale green walls and a bright yellow antique stove in the corner. A maze of tiny yellow lights are suspended from the ceiling. María 138’s menu is relatively limited and printed on throwaway sheets of plain white paper, nothing fancy, to say the least.
But the food, the food, is anything but ordinary.
Every item is personally prepared by Cialona’s mother, faithfully following the recipes that were passed down over the years through her family, using only the best ingredients and making all her pastas and sauces from scratch.
For starters, we were offered a trio of antipasti, each beautifully presented and incredibly delicious.
The caponata — a Sicilian must-have — was a creamy pyramid of grilled eggplant, mixed with onions, capers, celery, garlic and olives — lots of olives — with a generous portion of crusty toasted bread on the side. There was also an eggplant involtini, rolled around slivers of Reggiano parmesan and soft mozzarella cheese and drenched in a peppery pomodoro sauce with pine nuts.
The third antipasto was a white fish ceviche, one of the few items on María 138’s menu that has assimilated Latin American cookery.
More Peruvian in nature than Mexican, this ceviche had sweet undertones, having blended orange and yellow lemon juices as its marinade and incorporating a virtual symphony of contrasting flavors with fresh tomatoes, avocado, onions and green olives.
The entrees were accompanied by homemade limoncello mojitos (absolutely delightful) and a light and airy Mexican rosé wine that traveled easily into the next courses, making what could have been a heavy meal dietarily buoyant and easily digestible.
There were also baskets of fresh-cut sourdough bread (with an emphasis on the word “sour,” since this was bread made entirely from wild yeast, just like your great grandma used to make it), straight from the María 138 ovens.
The starters were all great, but I have to admit that it was the pasta course that convinced me that not only would I be returning to María 138, but that I would soon become a regular customer.
This trapanese pesto spaghetti was about as authentic Sicilian as I have ever tasted outside of the Mediterranean’s largest isle.
Cooked to perfection in terms of al dente firmness, the pasta was caressed in a vibrant sauce of fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, black pepper and pulverized almonds.
It is the almonds that distinguish Sicilian pesto, giving it an unexpected crunch and sweetness that diverges wonderfully with and accentuates the sharpness of the garlic and the piquant of the black pepper.
Few chefs in Mexico dare to add almonds to their Italian recipes, but María 139 unabashedly revels in their use, and that is what made this spaghetti so extraordinary.
Of course, the pièce de résistance of our group meal with an entire amberjack fish, sliced open and grilled in a blend of wild herbs and yellow lemons.
The filleted flesh melted in our mouths in perfect harmony with the rosé wine that continued to flow as the restaurant’s very friendly (albeit a bit inexpert) staff strived to meet our every culinary whim.
For dessert, Cialona offered up a new creation she called a mimosa, consisting of vanilla pound cake filled with sour orange cream cheese and a touch of Strega to give it a zesty zing, crowned with fresh-cut edible flowers.
The cake was so good that I tried to buy one at the exit when I left, but was told that they were not yet on the menu, so I couldn’t take one home (alas).
María 138 also has a large selection of stone-baked pizzas, which Cialona said were the main attraction for most of her clients (definitely something I am going to try next time).
And there is an very tempting ice cream cart at the entrance of the restaurant filled with a varying selection of homemade gelatos (also on my to-try list).
María 138 is located at Santa María de Ribera 138 (hence the name) in Mexico City’s Colonia Santa María la Ribera (tel: 55-7159-2039). It is open Monday through Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. All major credit cards are accepted and prices are extremely affordable. The restaurant does not have its own parking, but there is a public lot just a few feet away.