When you tire of moles, tlayudas, cecina, and other Oaxacan fare, why not go for pizza
Vieja Lira Trattoria & Pizzeria
Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.
Thankfully the recent expansion from 24 to 40 seats hasn’t detracted from the intimacy and quaintness of this downtown Italian restaurant and pizzeria. It still has classy yet welcoming décor of deep cranberry and white walls, simple pine tables and cushioned chairs stained dark to enhance a bistro-like feeling, and not to be overshadowed, floor-length draperies well-matched to the magenta / wine tones. The soft sound of jazz heard from the street is alone enough to make you want to take a peak in, and then you’re hooked.
You’re warmly welcomed by Italian owner Simone, who is almost always on hand. His presence remains, yet more in the nature of consultant, available to make suggestions, innately knowing when his attention is needed, and when not. He advises regarding selections from the printed menu, or large blackboard. We’ve never been disappointed with his wine recommendations, each having been carefully chosen by Simone so as to ensure appropriate pairing of food with wine, as well as affordability for middle-of-the-road patrons.
The primary culinary reason for visiting Vieja Lira is its pizzas. However, the fish, seafood, pastas and zuppas run a very close second. And even if the temptation to order a traditional plato fuerte is too great to resist, and you’re inclined to pass on the pizza, suggest to others in your party that pizza as one of the appetizers might satisfy the curiosity if not secret yearning of all.
Drinks arrive almost as readily as the crusty, soft yet dense bread, hand-cut to be drizzled with the herb infused olive oil or perhaps some paste-like salsa de chile de arbol.
The pizza is one generous size, with crust as thin as I’ve ever chomped, surely worthy of winning an award. It borders on the thickness of a tortilla or perhaps tlayuda. For this cena our eight-slicer had cheese, tomato and the usual herbs and spices, each quarter with a healthy topping of one of artichoke, black olive, mushroom and pepperoni. While it was the first appetizer to arrive, and we knew there were more entradas to follow, the four diners in our party were drawn to devour it all, without even a single, obligatory “no, you take the last piece.”
Our appetizers were rounded out with a bowl of ten or so medium-sized garlic shrimp, skewered, and an order of bruschetta of chicken liver paté, dare I say good enough to remind me of my grandmothers’ recipe from The Old Country. Watch out asiento, schmaltz is making inroads into Oaxaca.
My wife’s seafood bouillabaisse consisted of a medley of seafood and fish, juices appropriately spiced with a blend of fresh local herbs including your standard Italian selections, served in an oversized bowl. I continued with the crustacean theme, indulging in a hefty serving of fettuccini with seafood including squid, octopus, shrimp, scallop and local langostina in their shell. One of our guests ordered seared tuna over a bed of mixed exotic greens. She’d requested “rare, much less than medium,” I piped in “almost still swimming,” yet the plate arrived disappointingly overcooked, bordering on well. Without question or discussion the dish was removed, and in short order another serving, properly grilled, arrived with appropriate apology. The final entrée was one of the daily specials, rabbit with choice of penne or linguini, in a tangy tomato sauce.
Two bottles of Italian merlot having been retired, the restaurant by now almost empty, we were nevertheless still inclined to continue with just a bit more catching up with good friends. A couple of brandies and herbal teas, a tiramisu, and a coconut ice cream served in its half shell, most agreeably put the finishing touches on an evening of overall contentment.
Trattoria & Pizzeria
Pino Suárez 100
Hours: 1 - 11 p.m., closed Tuesday
Tel: 516 – 1122
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, tours couples and families to the craft villages, market towns, ruins and other sights in the state’s central valleys, and is special Oaxaca consultant to documentary film production companies.