The day got off to a bad start. The night before, I'd overindulged and was kept awake by indigestion. My remedy when this happens is a light breakfast comprising half an apple pie and a cup of Ghirardelli's hot chocolate. True, you do feel queasy afterward, but at least the heartburn's gone. Though not on this occasion: My esophagus now hurt more than ever, and I was nauseous as well. Sterner measures were called for. But what? And then inspiration struck: empanadas!
Nothing settles the stomach like an empanada, a small, savory, semicircular pie or pastry, usually with a scalloped edge, popular in Spain and much of South America. The classic empanada is Galician and most typically uses chicken and onions, though sardines are not unusual, nor, for that matter, is lamprey, an eel-like creature that thrives on blood, and whose funnel-shaped, jawless sucking mouth is ringed by rasping teeth.
Known generically as stuffed dough, the empanada is not unique to Spain and its former colonies. You'll find versions of it in many cultures. England has Cornish pasties; Jamaica, meat patties; and Italy, calzoni. ("Calzoni" means "trouser legs," by the way, a throwback to the time 200 years ago when such pies were long and narrow and resembled a nether garment worn by Neapolitan males.) But easily my favorite is the empanada made in Argentina where, as often as not, lard is used instead of butter, giving the crust an added lightness.
Marini's Empanadas, a modest restaurant with a resolutely '60s atmosphere, sells the Argentinean variety, but whether lard is used, I wasn't able to determine. Marcello Marini, the patriarch here, is loquacious to a fault, happily holding forth on a range of subjects -- politics, history, education, drug policy.... But inquire as to why his empanadas are so delicious, and he clams up. Only two people could answer that question, he told me: him and his grandmother. And of the two, she was the one more likely to talk. So where can I find her? I asked. Well, that would entail the purchase of a shovel, I was informed. The estimable lady, greatly mourned, died some time ago.
But Marini did admit to this: Instead of being baked, the empanadas here -- after they're filled and their edges are crimped -- are plunged in very hot oil. This is the method used in Naples to make the stuffed dough known as panzarotti (the word means "belly"). The pie is called this because when it's immersed, it swells the way a stomach does after ingesting a sizable meal.
There is music in Marini's empanadas -- which is just as well, since empanadas are all he serves. The menu lists a total of 28, six in which meat predominates, four in which the major element is cheese and seven containing vegetables. The other 11 are "sweet" empanadas and thereby depart from tradition. Filled with such things as apples and bananas and walnuts, they make an excellent dessert.
Of the savory variety, the ones I liked best were the gaucho, lean ground beef with onions, hard-boiled eggs and olives; the barbecue, tender beef in a sauce a family member devised some two decades ago; the ham and cheese, the latter mozzarella, the former imported; and the fugazetta, a great favorite with hippies, Marini tells us, and filled with sauteed onions. The New Yorker (broccoli and hollandaise sauce) is good, too. As is the Pancho Villa: jalapeno peppers and three kinds of cheese. But if it's spectacle you seek, try the sweet empanada called Carnival of the World: Made with fresh apples, walnuts, chocolate chips and dulce de leche -- described by Marini as Evita Peron's favorite caramel sauce -- it's embellished with lots of whipped cream and tastes like a profiterole.
In Argentina, empanadas are often served with wine. This is not the case in Marini's, the reason being that it lacks a license. But juices are available. And bottled water. And tea. You can also have the wonderfully fragrant cafe de olla, coffee simmered in a clay pot with sugar and cinnamon. It doesn't appear on the menu. Ask for it by name.
When you eat at Marini's, expect to be made a fuss of. I was greeted as an old friend the first time I went there, and the second time, I was met with such enthusiasm you'd have thought I was the Publishers Clearing House prize patrol. God knows what's in store when I visit next. A parking lot strewn with rose petals? The hand of one of the Marini girls? A procession in which I'm borne shoulder-high down much of Westheimer? The mind boggles.
The people at Marini's, I should warn you, are great talkers. First, Marini himself regaled us; and then it was the turn of his daughter Debbie, who, when she was summoned to the kitchen, was replaced by Marini's business partner, a lady who teaches tango. She was summoned also -- to the telephone -- but had only just left when her husband joined us, and when he had to leave for a moment, Marini's wife materialized. My heart sank when grandchildren were mentioned. Please God, I thought. Keep them occupied; don't let them choose now to pay a surprise visit.
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Marini, by the way, enjoys a measure of fame. Though this restaurant has been open little more than a month, an earlier one thrived in the Montrose area until it was destroyed by fire in the mid-1980s. Marini was ruined, and went to work in the public affairs department for Telemundo. But his fans remembered him. On a plane once -- Marini was flying to New York -- a man across the aisle shouted, "Look! It's Mr. Empanada!" Nor did Marini forget his fans. But for them, the new restaurant would not exist. "We're back in business because they asked for us," he said, suggesting a public clamor so intense, it couldn't be ignored.
The restaurant has an appealing makeshift quality. The empanadas, most of which cost $1.50, are served on paper plates and come with paper napkins. But don't expect cutlery. When a woman complained recently about the absence of knives and forks, Marini gently explained to her that an empanada was a humble thing blessedly free of pretension; something you could eat in a nightdress or pajamas.
Like the modest empanada, the decor here is aggressively unaffected. Still evolving, it reminds me of the carrel I had in grad school. There are posters, photographs and newspaper clippings, letters, postcards, straw mats.... A cornucopia of objets trouves. And adding to the incongruity is a china cabinet, containing not the usual Hummel figures but several jars of basting sauce. The Marinis, one gets the impression, regard anything conventional with horror.
By Eric Lawlor
Marini's Empanadas, 6154-B Westheimer, 952-5111.