CINCINNATI - Our Thursday column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.
Alfio’s Buon Cibo
Where: 2724 Erie Avenue, Cincinnati
Food: Italian Argentine Cuisine
Prices: Entrees $19 - $28
Italian and Argentine cuisines shine in this cozy fine dining venue. The marriage of the two cuisines is so seamless, the menu does not bother to bill itself as fusion. It does, however, maintain two different sections for Italian and Argentine specialties.
The buttery and creamy risottos – chicken and pancetta, or seafood – are mainstream Italian dishes. Ravioli, a dish of unmistakable Italian origin, is handcrafted with pasta freshly made in-house.
Two ravioli dishes stand out: Five Cheese Angus, and Braised Veal Short Rib. The first is served with a creamy tomato sauce, and the second is accompanied by a creamy truffle mushroom marsala sauce.
Empanadas are rooted in Argentina, but here they also receive an Italian touch. The Empanadas Trio are stuffed with prosciutto with roasted red peppers, spinach and cheese, and ground beef spiced with paprika and cumin.
The Grilled Scallops with salsa criolla – a fresh relish with onion, tomato and peppers – make for a vibrant fresh dish. The Spinach and Apple Salad dressed in quince pomegranate vinaigrette reveals a contemporary treatment.
The Argentine grilled meats, like the Skirt Steak with Argentine Relish served with butternut squash mashed potatoes--a family recipe--sets this restaurant apart. The Rib Eye with Chimichurri is also a crowd-pleaser.
Meet the owners
Alfio Gulisano (above, left) the chef and co-owner of Alfio's Buon Cibo, was born and raised in Buenos Aires.
"There are a lot of Italians in the Argentine population, and I'm a fourth generation Italian," he said.
Gulisano fondly recalls the delicious anticipation whenever there was a party at the family home.
"My mom and grandma woke up early in the morning, and they got the freshest and best food they could. Then they cooked through the day until everybody came to the table in the evening," Gulisano said. "They took care of everybody at home, and they were happy they did it through food."
Gulisano still vividly remembers the simmering tomato sauce, lasagna in the oven, and the homemade pasta dough.
"One-hundred grams of flour, one egg, and a little olive oil: That's the pasta recipe from my grandma," Gulisano said.
He has since converted it from the metric system, but this is the basic formula he still uses to this day.
Gulisano graduated from the Buenos Aires Catering culinary school and worked in the city's restaurants for a while. He made the journey to the United States when he wanted to broaden his culinary horizons. Gulisano found his way to Cincinnati, where he met Scott Lambert (above, right).
Lambert, the restaurant's co-owner, was born and raised in Cincinnati.
"I got my first restaurant job at 14 because I wanted to buy a moped," Lambert said. "My parents said, 'You have to work for it.'"
Lambert worked all aspects of the front-of-the-house--from bussing, to managing, to bartending. It was in drinks that he found his niche.
"I got into bartending, from pub style, to martini club, to piano bar," he said.
Lambert entered real estate for a few years, before returning to bartending in 2009. He met Gulisano at Bella Luna, where he was the bartender, and Gulisano was the executive chef.
"We clicked right away," Lambert said. "We had mutual respect for each other's work ethic and passion."
The pair quickly became friends and wasted no time in visualizing their own restaurant.
"We basically have the ability to cut the restaurant in half. I’m in the front-of-the-house, and Alfio runs the kitchen," Lambert said.
Three years after they met, Gulisano and Lambert opened Alfio's Buon Cibo in Hyde Park Square.
"We want to expand the cultural spectrum, and bring the youth into it as well," Gulisano said.
Gulisano eloquently captures the essence of his home country's cuisine in one sentence: " It is redundant to say Italian Argentine, because it just is."
The Italian and Argentine culinary traditions weave around each other effortlessly in Argentina, a result of the mass migration of Italians in the 1900s.
"Empanadas are classical Argentine. Every pizzeria, small or big, will have 60 different kinds when you walk in," Gulisano said.
However, Gulisano adds an Italian flair to his empanadas with the use of prosciutto. "I use roasted red pepper prosciutto. It's not a normal combination. You find ham but not prosciutto in empanada in Argentina."
Gulisano, also adds his grandmother's touch to his empanada.
"My grandma used to do a spinach pizza, that to this day, if I go to Argentina, that’s the only thing I want to eat," he said. "That's how good it is."
Gulisano manages to recreate the flavors of the spinach
pizza, and uses that as the stuffing for his empanadas.
Ravioli, a classic dish in Italy, receives a new treatment in Gulisano's kitchen.
"The normal stuff in Argentina are spinach, ricotta and chicken, or ricotta, walnuts and ham. Here, I braise veal short ribs for five hours in porcini broth to create a depth of flavor, and use that as the stuffing."
Skirt steak is a staple at Alfio's Buon Cibo.
"I think skirt steak is an under-rated cut. It's not normally offered in the steak houses in this area, but grilled skirt steak is a true authentic steak in Argentina," Gulisano said. "It is a little chewier but it has a lot of flavor."
By the way
In the late 19th to early 20th Centuries, many Italians left Italy to seek better opportunities. Gulisano explained that families often split up: Some went to New York, while others headed for Argentina.
"My great-grandparents came to Buenos Aires, and their relatives went to New York. So there are four generations of Gulisano in New York. I’ve found them actually," Gulisano said.
"In the early 1900s, Italian siblings were named with opposites, for example, Carlo for the brother, and Carla for the sister," Gulisano added. "I was able to find my great-grandfather's sister because she had the same last name but opposite name as my great-grandfather."