Américas / September-October 2001
By Larry Luxner
Twenty-three kilometers from downtown Managua, at the end of a winding mountain road flanked by both crumbling shacks and elegant mansions, sits Al di Lá -- one of the finest gourmet restaurants in Central America.
But it's not just a restaurant. Al di Lá is also the not-so-private home of María José Argüeyo, Nicaragua's vice-minister of culture from 1994 to 1997 and a close friend of former President Violeta Chamorro.
Open to the public on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. (and to groups of at least eight to ten people the rest of the week by reservation only), Al di Lá offers its patrons mouth-watering specialties such as grilled Australian lamb chops marinated with rosemary and accompanied by white beans and stuffed tomatoes, or filet of red snapper on a tower of yucca, along with avocado sauce, sprinkled with pipérade tomato sauce and sweet Nicaraguan fruit known as guabas.
Doña María says she got into the restaurant business quite by accident.
"In 1997, after the change in government, I found myself without work," the apron-clad former minister explained during a quick break from the kitchen. "Like all Latin American countries, we had clubs, but during the Sandinista regime, they disappeared. So my home became a club for diplomats, journalists, NGOs and others."
Argüeyo, a native of León who was once married to an Italian man and still has dual Nicaraguan-Italian citizenship, says that "an Italian friend suggested to me that in Rome, couples opened their homes to the public. And when I went to Cuba as vice-minister of culture, people were already allowed to open restaurants in their homes."
After six months of preparation, Argüeyo finally inaugurated her restaurant in August 1998 with about 80 people in attendance, including Chamorro. Since then, the steady stream of business has kept Doña María and her 16 employees on their feet constantly.
"I don't do any advertising, except for Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. It's all by word-of-mouth," she said. "People say this is the best restaurant in Nicaragua, some say the best in Central America, but it's not complicated cuisine. It's not Nicaraguan cuisine either, though we try to integrate local elements into our menus. We use nothing artificial."
She adds: "This is a very poor country, and many times I go to the supermarket and don't find what I need, so occasionally we have to import ingredients from Costa Rica and Guatemala."
Argüeyo, who designs the dishes and menus herself, charges a flat $25 or its equivalent in Nicaraguan córdobas for a five-course meal consisting of an appetizer, first course, main course, salad and dessert. On Fridays, she makes the desserts, and on Sunday mornings she prepares the salsas, mashed potatoes and other vegetables that have to be made at the last minute.
Before the Sandinista revolution, Argüeyo was the general manager of Casa de las Artesanías of Banco Nicaragüense, and in the early 1990s, she helped promote fine arts for the Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura. Doña María knows Nicaraguan high society intimately and has worked hard to gain the loyalty of that important sector, though lately she's also thinking of turning her home and restaurant into a bed-and-breakfast for average tourists.
"It's impossible to make money being open once a week, so I also cater lunches and dinners for the IDB, President Alemán and other dignitaries," she said. "When we have a big group, I have all the furniture downstairs removed and taken upstairs, and we put tables in the living room. We get lots of ambassadors and United Nations people, and once in awhile, we get American tourists too."
From the windows of the restaurant, located 957 meters above sea level, patrons can gaze out at nearby El Crucero and the mountain vistas below. The view is spectacular until mid-afternoon, when the fog rolls in and even her backyard garden becomes invisible. That's when visitors frequently tour the Argüeyo home, admiring the ceramics and artifacts collected over a lifetime of travel.
"I try to make people feel at home here," said Argüeyo, who personally greets visitors and kisses them good-bye. "With globalization, food is becoming more standardized throughout the world, so I try to do something different. I offer my home to the world."