Neighborhood Watch: Palermo

A Buenos Aires borough’s spirit finds its legs, redefining what Argentine culture means today

Neighborhood Watch: Palermo

Photography by Javier Pierini

It’s early morning, and things are already buzzing at Chori, a sandwich joint that opened last year in Palermo Soho, a colorful, ramshackle neighborhood in the heart of the Palermo district. Behind a glass counter, wild boar, lamb and pork sausages hang in bunches, ready to be stuffed into choripánes, the chorizo and chimichurri sandwiches beloved by Argentines for over a century. Later, the shop’s banana-yellow façade will be swarmed by people vying to order a sandwich by chef Pedro Peña and a cocktail by Tato Giovannoni, perhaps Argentina’s most famous bartender. With this seemingly modest eatery, Peña and Giovannoni have joined a crop of young Argentines interpreting their culture for the next generation, giving Palermo a sense of pride that makes it stand out among other Buenos Aires districts.

Four centuries ago, Palermo—named after Giovanni Domenico Palermo, the Italian farmer who first settled here—was an uninhabited wetland. By the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood, and Buenos Aires overall, had entered a Gilded Age, a period of social and cultural regeneration fueled by Argentina’s thriving livestock and agricultural industries. But then, just as the tide of prosperity crested, it receded with a succession of military coups beginning in 1930, a period of struggle that fed the city’s knack for gloomy philosophizing; Palermo resident Jorge Luis Borges described the country’s rise and fall as “eternal as water and air.”

Today, despite more recent economic setbacks for the national economy, Palermo is once again on the rise. Often described as a “neighborhood of neighborhoods,” the bustling and increasingly fashionable barrio extends for seven square miles, bordering the Rio de la Plata to the east and Recoleta to the southeast. While hundreds of acres of parks attract locals to Palermo’s eastern rim, most out-of-towners head west to the specialty coffee shops, restaurants, bars and bookstores of Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho.

But Palermo’s economic success has not completely done away with the local penchant for melancholy—indeed, in some ways it has fed it. Some say that in the post-2001 revival, the neighborhood got too popular, that its mash-up of high-end storefronts and high-rise apartments have priced out the artists and young entrepreneurs who once occupied its centuries-old family homes. Yet even the most wistful Porteño cannot deny that money and status aren’t the only forces shaping the area today.

Tato Giovannoni’s Chori sandwich shop is just one of the Palermo enterprises driving a kind of street-level patriotism, in a country that has traditionally looked toward Europe for inspiration and validation. There are other spots here that capture that spirit, like Proper Restaurant, where chefs serve charred calamari with broccoli and fermented bean aioli, and Tegui, where chef Germán Martitegui has established himself as a pioneer of modern Argentine cuisine. “We want to honor our heritage without the typical nostalgia that normally comes with it,” Giovannoni says. “We are proud of our European heritage, but we’re Argentine. We’re just now discovering what that means.”

 

Specialty coffee shop Café Registrado

To understand Palermo, you need to explore its warren of sub-barrios, each of which has its own specific flavor. The swankiest is Palermo Chico, a district lined with embassy homes and historic mansions. One of these is Casa Cavia, a grand 1920s residence that, since 2014, has served as a kind of one-stop shop for sensual indulgence—its halls contain a restaurant, florist and library. The endeavor is the work of creative director Guadalupe García Mosqueda, who restored the belle époque gem to its former splendor. And while she may have added a few whimsical touches—books hanging from the ceiling, a leafy living wall near the bar—it’s the traditional craftsmanship that makes García most proud. The gold-leaf cornice in the dining room, she says, was executed “step-by-step by a 90-year-old Argentine man; he’s the only one who can do it.” And this fact, for García, says something about Palermo as a whole. “There aren’t huge stores or big corporations here; we don’t have Ikea. We still do everything by hand.”

Garcia’s mother, Ana Mosqueda, runs Casa Cavia’s publishing house, Ampersand. Her office overlooks Plaza Alemania, a grassy public space designed by Jules Charles Thays, who, along with his son Carlos León Thays, created many Buenos Aires parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Casa Cavia is almost heartbreakingly nostalgic, an ode to Palermo’s glittering past, a 20-minute walk from here takes you to Palermo Botánico, an area where Porteños are focused on what’s next.

On Avenida Cabello, a block east of Eco Parque, you’ll find hot young designers like Paula Selby Avellaneda, whose House of Matching Colours showcases her couture line of embroidered dresses and leather jackets. “I’ve lived on these five blocks my entire life,” says Avellaneda, whose clients have included Beyoncé and Rihanna. After stints in Milan, Antwerp and Paris, she returned home in 2012, with the aim of “redefining what elegance and luxury mean in Argentina.”

Nearby is Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays, a wedge-shaped patch of greenery next to the vehicular mayhem of Plaza Italia. A few streets north of here, Palermo Hollywood begins. Along with its many restaurants and bars, the area is home to edgy enterprises like Corchetes, the design studio and store of Erika Salerno. She went to school for industrial design, but her real work began when she realized Argentina’s wine industry left tons of cork unused. Today, she uses cork to produce items like lamps and notebooks, creating beauty from waste, something the people of Palermo do well.

A few blocks further into Palermo Hollywood, rock music booms from Salvaje Bakery. Inside, punk baker Germán Torres, clad in his standard grey beanie, works away. Torres, who likens bread to a therapist and baking to love, is determined to offer an alternative to the French boulangeries that have ruled Buenos Aires for generations. “We’re an Argentine bakery,” he says. “We don’t do croissants; we do medialunas [a smaller, denser version of a croissant].” Torres also makes famously delicious buckwheat and rye bread, using a six-year-old sourdough starter known as masa madre. “Once you try Salvaje’s bread,” he says with a grin, “you can’t go back.”

On the slightly gritty Avenida Juan Bautista Justo, beyond a tunnel covered with graffiti art, I meet Martín Bustamante and Astrid Hoffman, classmates and friends who grew up a few blocks from the two businesses they run from the same building. The first of these is Facón, from which Bustamante sells Argentine handicrafts. Over an alfajor, a cookie sandwich stuffed with dulce de leche, he explains that this was once his family home. He opened Facón last summer, he says, because “the space was too great to rent to a Starbucks.”

A traditional casa chorizo—a long, narrow layout with a central courtyard—the building also accommodates Salú, Hoffman’s cooking school, which aims to pass on Argentine culinary traditions to a new generation. “I love Palermo. It’s authentic, the very antithesis of pretentious,” Hoffman says. What she and Bustamante want to do here, she adds, is to “reclaim the original Argentina that rests below the surface.”

Back in Palermo Soho, I meet designer Laura Caracciolo, known as Laurie Hanky to fans of her silk headscarves. We join artist María Luque for milky cortado coffees at Varela Varelita, one of the city’s protected traditional bares notables. Luque uses the café as a kind of studio, painting the people around her in an effort to capture the day-to-day life of Palermo. “I know almost all the other regular customers, so we say hi to each other and have a little chat about drawings, chess, coffee and the weather,” she says. “I love watching a story unfold at each table.” Luque prefers to “enjoy art and not understand it completely,” she says. “Maybe it’s better if it remains mysterious.” About 10 blocks from here is Galería Mar Dulce, a gallery showcasing the work of Argentine artists, Luque included.

Dinner hour awakens Palermo with the hum of revelers (it’s not really considered dinner if it’s before 10:30 p.m.). I enter La Carnicería, a restaurant that updates the country’s classic parrilla barbecues. The menu, written in the colorfully stylized fileteado porteño motif, is plastered on a wooden board above the kitchen. I order chorizo with fried eggs, beef tartare and a meat double down of parrilla ribeye with chimichurri and venison rump with beetroot and carrot mash. Riquísima.

My final stop is Boticario, an apothecary-themed bar serving medicinal cocktails as elixirs and cures. I order a tea hibiscus tonic, a floral drink made with yerba mate-based Príncipe de los Apóstoles gin, macerated hibiscus flowers, basil and grapefruit-lemon oil. The walls of the bar are plastered with palm wallpaper and old maps, an allusion to Argentina’s former pharmacists and their global exploration to find traditional medicines.

Like the pharmacists of yesteryear, Porteños once looked outward for almost everything—be it culture or commerce. But today, particularly in Palermo, the ethos is all Argentine. It’s an attitude that’s palpable. As fashion designer Paula Selby Avellaneda puts it, “Wake up! It will never be the 1930s again. Buenos Aires is a city where things happen.”

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Arts & Crafts
Palermo’s shops showcase emerging Argentine talent

Panorama
Owner María Lee presents women’s ready-to-wear from local designers. including asymmetrical cocktail dresses and made-in-Argentina leather boots.
pnrm.com.ar

Pötit
A Palermo Hollywood garage-turned-greenhouse, Pötit sells ceramics by Argentine artisans, including local favorites Patio, a mother and son duo.
potit.com.ar

Patrón
At Patrón in Palermo Soho, leather collars and geometric pendants—the work of Argentina’s best jewelry designers—line the walls.
patronba.com

 

Enseres
In Palermo Hollywood, owners Miguel Esmoris and Cecilia Miranda offer handmade enamelware, silver teapots and olive wood cutting boards.
enseresbazar.net

 

Paul French Gallery
Within a hidden alley in Palermo Soho, beyond exposed railroad tracks and a plant-shrouded tea shop, this bazaar sells a range of vintage items, from bar carts to bicycles.
pauldeco.com


Fresh cups

Eschewing burnt-bean nostalgia, Palermo’s coffee culture shapes up

Café Registrado
At this industrial corner lot, María Esther López Cásares leads Argentina’s only Specialty Coffee Association training center. The facility, which opened this March, uses ethical, direct-from-farmer sourcing and houses a roasting facility and testing lab.

facebook.com/caferegistrado

 

LAB Tostadores
After making a name for itself as a first-rate supplier to local cafés, LAB Tostadores opened its own shop in 2014. Owner Alexis Zagdañski notes that as the Argentine palate changes, he hopes the “barista will replace the bartender. That’s the kind of connection we want coffee to have.”

labcafe.com.ar
 

Lattente

The first specialty coffee shop in Argentina, Lattente originally opened in Recoleta in 2011, then moved to Palermo Soho in 2012 to “make coffee for open-minded people,” says co-owner Zehan Nurhadzar. In the early days, she says they had to explain what a latte was, but “now people come in and ask for an AeroPress.”
cafelattente.com