I have the same type of love/hate relationship with Las Cañitas in Buenos Aires as with South Beach or LKF in Hong Kong. These are polished up neighborhoods designed to attract tourists and expats like moths to the neon-tinted flame. In each one there is usually at least one fake-ass “Tuscan Trattoria” with red and white checked, plastic tablecloths. There is also an equally terrible Asian fusion place with greasy noodles or “sushi” that contains more than 4 ingredients other than rice and fish. A rainbow of squeezed-on sauces that make no sense whatsoever adorn the latter. There is an abundance of restaurants that serve the glitzy version of what is projected to be the country’s authentic folk cuisine. “Asado, asado.” “Real Cuban mojitos.” “The best shrimp pad thai in Phuket.” These are perhaps the worst… But even such neighborhoods can be home to the occasional gem, a restaurant worth returning to. In Cañitas that restaurant is called Morelia.
I was first introduced to Morelia on a weekend exchange trip to BsAs while studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. The coordinator of the Argentina program had planned out a weekend that would lead me to deeply regret my decision about which side of the Andes to study on. It took only a few hours for me to completely fall in love with the city and I promised myself that I would return – to live – after graduating college. As I try to recall what it was, specifically, that drew me to the city, I realize that my first dinner at Morelia was a large part of it. The lens through which I saw the restaurant has changed dramatically due to a variety of colorful experiences on the mean streets of Cañitas, but certain aspects of the experience remain in my memory completely objective and unchanged. The most notably consistent part: the texture of that crust that I would dream about for months afterwards.
Equipped with both a grill and a wood fire oven, the kitchen at Morelia churns out grilled meats in addition to baked things like calzones and empanadas. I’m sure these are great too, but there really shouldn’t ever be any doubt as to what the must-order items are. Half of the menu is a list of rectangular pizzas that can either be baked in the oven (with a slightly thicker crust) or grilled on the parrilla. It’s a matter of preference and I 100% choose the crackling thin-crust charred in random patches, a beautiful thing that can only be achieved a la parrilla. The dough at Morelia is to die for, and they know it; a bowl of fresh, warm, oven-baked bread is proudly sent out to each table, along with a ramekin of mature olive oil to dip into. It’s incredibly difficult not to eat the entire bowlful. The cubes are flaky and buttery, with a crunchy exterior and a fluffy but dense base. They’re a bit like toasted focaccia without the herbs. This is actually one of the rare occasions where I would recommend NOT saving space for your main by neglecting the bread basket. The pizzas are too large to finish anyway, so the doggy-bag is an inevitable part of the experience.
When asked, as is routine in an Argentine pizzeria, whether we wanted fainá with our ‘za my dinner companion replied in the affirmative without hesitation. I veered away from it. Fainá is a chewy, starchy flatbread made of garbanzo bean flour, a tiny bit of Parmesan and salt/pepper. It is cut into irregular triangles and, in Argentina and Uruguay, lain over slices of pizza to make it into pizza a caballo. The pancake originated under the name farinata in Genoa, where it is enjoyed as an appetizer by itself or seasoned with salt and pepper. There, it is also sometimes made into a sandwich by being stuck into foccaccia or between two slices of bread. Fainá is commonly sold at pizzerias in addition to bakeries, which might explain its role in Argentin/Uruguayan cuisine: I think the dish was initially brought overseas by Italian pizzeria owners who continued serving it in the traditional Italian way. When the next generation took over running these establishments they kind of didn’t know what to do with all the fainá lying around so they started serving it atop their pizzas. I guess the stuff gives thin-crust pies a textural boost. Personally when I order a la parilla it’s because I want a delicate, crunchy crust instead of a mouthful of bean starch. I also don’t enjoy the way the cake weighs down on fresh ingredients, squishing life out of them and overpowering them with its own very dull flavor. But to each their own. Maybe they’re ok as an appetizer but never on top of my pizza…
We decided to share two a la parrilla pizzas, one simple and the other a more elaborate house special. Our simple choice was the Caprese with snow white mozzarella melted over the thin, firm crust and slices of fresh tomato grilled right onto that. Bright green leaves of basil were sprinkled over the top. The flavors of this pizza were pure, allowing the quality of the crunchy, country crust to really shine through. And while the ingredients were simple, they were fresh and added to the base in perfect sequence – mozzarella first to get nice and gooey, tomatoes to warm through and caramelize at the edges, and basil last to retain most of its freshness but still transfer flavor to its cheesy canvas. The pizza was immensely satisfying both fresh out of the oven and as breakfast the following day. A few bites of it cold proved to be a delicious snack and just 2 quick minutes in the oven reconstituted the original textures perfectly.Their specialty pizzas are slightly more complex and include a larger number of premium toppings such as hearts of palm, mushrooms and meats. We chose one with pancetta (again, the Argentine word for “bacon”), caramelized onion, cheese and herbs sprinkled on. It was largely a white pizza, with a very thin layer of tomato sauce and plenty of stretchy mozzarella thinned out towards the edges of the pie. The cheese was just enough to provide a luxurious mouthfeel, but did not weigh down or make soggy the crunchy, grilled crust. Thick slabs of bacon were perfectly cooked through and crisped up, crunchy and brittle and easy to chew. Smoky and salty, with a bit of grease sizzling on the surface, the meat packed tremendous flavor into each bite. The savory bacon was rounded out by the natural sweetness of the caramelized onion that was sprinkled over the cheese. I especially enjoyed that the pieces of onion were not uniform in shape. There were some thin strings that crisped up into golden brown frites and some larger, vegetal chunks that cooked through and became tender and juicy in the middle. In addition to being delicious, the pizza was also just plain gorgeous. The bacon charred at its edges against snowy white mozzarella, violet and gold onions sprinkled over the top and a wonderfully rustic, patchy crust. Guests at the table next to ours couldn’t stop staring and eventually asked for the name of our pizza to order the same. Those around us who had already gotten something different hung their heads in disappointment.
I’ve been back to Morelia numerous times since my first night in Argentina 5 years ago and each time has been memorable, in a good way. On a hot summer eve it’s a great spot to sit outside and people-watch. For slightly cooler nights there is a 2nd floor patio, furnished with tables and comfortable lounge couches overlooking the street. For even colder days – well – the dining room is pretty beautiful too. Although the cocktail list is not too creative, the drinks are strong for the price. And the pizzas (especially a la parrilla) find the perfect balance of light and substantial. Ideal for dinner before a night out both with a date or with friends, Morelia is elegant and stylish enough for Cañitas without trying too hard and becoming pretentious in the process.