A city of restaurants, Cuzco offers surprises and delights on almost every street in the colonial core. Among the offerings are ones that are understated and marvelous, as well as overstated and faulty. No matter their rankings in international publications, sometimes they please and sometimes they leave you feeling unsatisfied and vaguely bothered.
Bodega 138 (Herrajes 138) comes highly recommended. It ranks number seven of almost four hundred restaurants according to Trip Advisor which awarded the restaurant a certificate of quality. As a result, we went to the restaurant ready to be wowed with the fine pastas, hyped as the soul food of Italy, and fine pizzas.
A block and a half from the Plaza de Armas, the restaurant occupies a relatively large space on a gloomy street across from the Archbishop’s Palace, the massive rock-walled palace also attribute to Inca Roca. It lights up the street with its gleaming windows with hand-crafted wooden toys in them.
Inside it is attractive and vey enticing. The people are very friendly and attentive as they bring you their menus, with details repeated on a chalk board in the main room. As the restaurant’s Facebook page proclaims, “a place which will entice you to stay.”
Not only have I lingered there over food and drink, but I have also returned several times. In my mind I keep having the idea that a place so charming and so well recommended must be good. And, it is good, if you are referring to charm, decor, and service. Unfortunately, its food does not rise to the hype given it.
After taking your order, the servers will bring you a small basket of “garlic bread”, a buttered, parsley-ed and maybe lightly garlic-ed bread, sauces–such as garlic cream and a grind of tomatoes and hot peppers, as well as a small dish of pitted, botija olives dressed in an herb infused oil. To be frank, these olives were the best thing I have had there, with their refreshing tartness and herby flavor.
While there, I have eaten pizzas (they were ordinary at best, not well conceived nor realized), pastas and salads.
The next best thing has been the salads. The greens are fresh and well washed and the salads are made with well-purchased nuts and fruits. Both salads I had were served with a vinaigrette made from a native elderberry fruit called sauco locally. The vinaigrette had the small fruits in it and was served in a small pitcher to the side of a beautifully carried off plate of mixed greens, fruits, nuts, and sometimes cheese. Unfortunately, if you did not stir the dressing before serving it, the fruit stayed in the bottom of the pitcher.
Depending on the salad this can be a wonderful dressing or one that conflicts with the ingredients. I have had both experiences with my salads. Here is where the problems with La Bodega 138 begin. They are imaginative and filled with the sometimes whimsical creativity, as well as deadening seriousness, that often accompanies cooking in Cuzco’s ostensibly fine restaurants. Unfortunately, the ideas sound better and look better than they taste.
The heart of La Bodega (besides the wine list that is hinted at in the name which translates as “wine cellar”) is pizza and pasta. The pizza was reasonable, but not really good.
Their pasta is another story. They advertise having the best past in Cuzco and claim to do things in the proper “Italian” way.
This thing about real Italian is just too controversial to take seriously. It is almost like the word authentic attached to Mexican food. If that word is there the food is probably anything but what is actually eaten and prepared in the Republic of the Aztecs.
The spaghetti carbonara is a case in point. The dish is tasty, served with un-crisped bacon and a creamy garlicky sauce just slightly clinging to the pasta. The dish does not come in a sea of cream sauce like in so many Peruvian restaurants, but it is also not the real Italian dish it claims to be.
A carbonara is a dish from Rome made with guanciale (pig’s jowels) and egg–not cream. Both the technique and the ingredients are simply wrong.
In fairness, though, the dish is tasty and well presented. If they would not claim to be real Italian, I might even recommend it. I suspect in this is a history of how a Roman dish came to Peru, became popularized in Lima’s Italian restaurants and then spread throughout the country.
Bodega 138 faces a problem, as a result, not unlike someone who in the US or Europe insists enchiladas are not made with flour tortillas. In the US they are, and in Mexico they are not. What is claimed as real in one country is not real in the ostensible country of origin.
The rest of the Pasta dishes my friends and I have tried are either unremarkable, or actually bad. The lasagna was filled with water which thinned the so-called bolognese sauce to nothing, and the combinations of herbs and ingredients in the others were poorly thought out. They did not provide the intense boost of flavor one expects to complement the delightful taste of a good pasta.
So, we at Cuzco Eats cannot give La Bodega 138 more than a lukewarm recommendation. The place is comfortable and attractive. The people are warm and really a delight. The food is what it is. If you want to go somewhere with friends where the food is not really the main reason for going there–maybe you just want a glass of wine and the olives–the La Bodega may be for you.
If you want good pasta or good pizza there are far better places in Cuzco, no matter what Trip Advisor says.