One of the major complaints of newcomers to Cuenca is that they can’t find good bread or coffee. Granted, much of the offerings here are truly ghastly, at least by gringo standards, but this is understandable in a land of corn eaters and tea drinkers. On the other hand, those of us who have learned our way around can point the newbees in the right direction. Let me tell you where to look.

A relatively recent addition to Cuenca’s culinary options is Maria's Alemania bakery at the corner of Calles Hermano Miguel and Sucre in El Centro. Without hesitation, I can recommend Maria's as the best place in town for bread. Although the bread at the local SuperMaxis are pretty good, Maria’s is definitely a cut above.

Maria lived in Germany for many years (her mom's Cuencana, her dad's German) where she married Tarsa. Fortunately for us, Tarsa is a certified German Master Baker. Earning the title is not for slouches and requires the applicant to go through rigorous training and pass some stern tests. Maintaining the German standards at Cuenca’s high altitude proved to be another tough test but I can tell you, it has been accomplished at Maria’s.

The majority of Maria’s breads are whole meal with different flours and seeds added.  Onion and olive and country breads are available as well as pizza by the piece (not slice). Other pan integral selections contain bits of fruit, including figs and raisins. All of them are fabulous.

I won’t go near the delicious-looking pastries, cookies and cheesecake...but you can. The apple and cinnimon rolls are the size of hubcaps and if you take a hankering to them I can assure you that you’ll soon be rolling down the street.

Maria’s also serves sandwiches at lunchtime and has a small dining area in back.

Maria’s Alemania, Hermano Miguel at Sucre, opposite Libri Mundi; open Monday thru Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (closed Saturdays and Sundays); Tel. 2834 684 or 09 2963 712.

About coffee … There is one local brand that is truly world class. It’s Rancho del Rocio, an Arabica variety grown in nearby Yunguilla valley. It is a smooth, mild coffee with fabulous flavor that goes easy on the caffeine. For the record, it is shade-grown without the use of pesiticides or other fumigants, and it is picked by hand. Rancho del Rocio, is the brand of long-time Cuenca resident Charlie Brown and is served by several local restaurants. It is also available for domestic consumption at stores throughout Cuenca. I suggest you buy yours from Carol and Lee at the Carolina Book Store on Calle Miguel near Calle Larga.

Another good coffee can be found at Café Lojano on Calle Sucre, just west of Padre Aguirre. Grown in Loja province, south of Cuenca, Café Lojano is a blend that packs more of a caffeine kick than Rancho del Rocio. At the Café Lojano shop you can buy coffee pre-ground or en grano.

FABULOUS NEW ITALIAN CHOICE ON AV. PRIMERO DE MAYO

[I want to thank Leita Jean Hulmes for this wonderful report on a new Italian restaurant in New Town. Cantagallo sounds like a place worth checking out. --Sumana]

Let me tell you about a very pleasant surprise two weeks ago!  It came when we joined several friends at a tiny Italian restaurant called Cantagallo Restauranty y Pub on Av. Primero de Mayo and Felipe Segundo.

Entering Cantagallo, I felt like I was walking into a real Italian home (and this from a woman who grew up with all my Sicilian family telling me “Mangia! Mangia!” or “Eat! Eat!”). My warm first impression set the tone for the evening.

Cantagallo’s has a relatively varied menu: soups starting at $2.50 for consomé de pollo al jerez, to sopa Marinera for $5.80. The most expensive item on the menu is lomo fino, 500 grs. for $9.00. Three different preparations of langostinos are a close second in the top price category at $8.95 (my companion, Bush, said his were fabulous – at least I think that’s what he said as he licked his plate). I had pasta – Plato del Chef, which is lonjitas de lomo fino, pollo, camarones y champiñones al curry on a bed of fettuccine, for $5.85 (and it was to die for). I’m sure my arteries clogged up a bit, but the food made me forget any potential concerns. Unfortunately, I was so busy enjoying my food that I’m not sure what everyone else ate, but there was certainly lots of ‘yummmms’ from my nine friends at the table.

Next on my list to try is the Cantagallo en salsa de mariscos, or maybe the Punta Cana, con fondos de alcachofa y esparragos a la crema on either salmon or corvina, either one for $6.80. Yum!

Two minor complaints: the wines are quite pricey and smoking seems to be allowed in the dining area. On the other hand, the owners allow you to bring your own wine (‘corkage’ fee is $2.00) and I did not complain about the smoker, who was across the room from me.

I should add that beer at Cantagallo’s is $2 for Heineken and Corona, and $1 for Pilsener and Club.

A quick P.S.  Bush and I took another friend, Ben, to dinner at Cantagallo’s a week after our first visit. I was still in the mood for pasta and had the crab and shrimp crème sauce over fettuccine. Ben had the tortellini with pomodora sauce and Bush had his usual langostinos. Ben loves Italian food and said this was the best he’s had in Cuenca. Once again, there were plenty of “yummmms” all ‘round.

Cantagallo Restaurant y PubAv. Primero de Mayo y Felipe Segundo: open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 7 p.m.  until … for dinner (closed on Mondays); tel.  2816 872.