From Italy to Centro Habana: The Story of SalchiPizza

By Yusimi Rodriguez

Alberto Gonzalez

HAVANA TIMES — Months ago, a foreign acquaintance of mine who had plans of settling in Cuba and opening a business there, was telling me there was no good bread on the island. It is no secret that our daily bread is getting worse on a daily basis – Panfilo, the main character in Cuba’s sitcom Vivir del cuento (“Living By One’s Wits”), has even devoted one show to this issue.

For my acquaintance, no bread sold in Cuba, not even the expensive kind sold at hard-currency bakeries, classified as “good bread.” “If I stay, I’m going to open a business that offers a broad variety of high quality bread.”

I think the business she has in mind already exists in Havana. I came across it, incidentally, while heading to a hard currency bakery to buy a bag of bran bread, which is the closest thing to whole-wheat bread you can buy at these and peso bakeries.

If you’re walking down Infanta street in the direction of San Lazaro, you are not likely to miss SalchiPizza on the left sidewalk (even though the sign isn’t exactly noteworthy). Through the display window, on a small counter, you’ll see a variety of tasty-looking breads. That is only part of what the store offers, but it will likely suffice to make you go in and have a look.

Everyone who enters the store must abide by its one rule: don’t buy anything before you taste it. The one thing that may prevent you from buying anything after you’ve tasted it are the prices. Could they be too high?

After my second visit to SalchiPizza, I told my foreign friend about the things I came across at the store, including whole-wheat bread (made with whole-wheat flour, without yeast – genuine whole-wheat bread). The breads they make also have flax, mustard, coriander, millet, pumpkin, sunflower and poppy seeds.

“Now, take a guess at the prices,” I challenged her. And she guessed right, because it’s what any bread with those characteristics costs around the world – in other words, the kinds of prices the average Cuban cannot afford.

Who owns this business, located in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana, near the low-income areas, where people, like most Cubans, do not make a habit of eating fancy bread?

If you miss the picture hanging on the wall, the man kneading the dough or welcoming anyone who enters SalchiPizza may strike you as yet another employee. Alberto Gonazalez’ philosophy, see, is the following: “if I want my employees to respect me, I have to work next to them. I can’t come to the store just to collect.”

Types of bread.

The first thing he tells me is that he’s not interested in publicity and that he hasn’t granted any interviews to other media that have shown interest in his store. He let me interview him, but I have to ask him the questions while he works – he never once takes a break. “If I’m going to sit, I might as well stay at home,” he tells me.

This 43-year-old man studied chemical engineering for the food industry and is a water treatment expert. He also holds a chef degree. He has applied his knowledge of physics to the store’s ventilation system. The bottles hanging from the ceiling may look like innovative décor and the overall result may indeed be attractive, but nothing is gratuitous in this place. The bottles capture the hot air that rises and condense it. The latticework has been designed in a way that allows air to flow in and out of the store. Thanks to all this, there is an agreeable temperature inside SalchiPizza, without the need for air conditioning, which is “bad for the bread and people,” Alberto tells us.

The photographer who came with me asks him whether he is renting the locale. Alberto replies that he isn’t. The investment has been considerable. However, this hard-working man, who’s invested a fair sum of money in this business, isn’t its official owner, but one of its employees. Alberto is in the process of becoming repatriated in Cuba, after living in Italy for 16 years.

Alberto: I traveled to Italy several times on a work contract, while working with Cubanacan. I would almost always travel to the islands. In 1996, they hired me to work at the Bodeguita del Medio bar in Milan. It was the second establishment they’d opened in Italy, the first had been opened in Rome. I started working there in May of 1996. In 1998, I decided to stay.

Alberto describes his experiences as a Third-World, black émigré in the First World as very difficult.

The life of the émigré is always very difficult no matter where you are, particularly if you’re an adult, because you leave behind your roots. From the professional point of view, however, it opens up many horizons.

In Italy, Alberto won the Bronze Medal for International High Cuisine (2007) and the Golden Spoon and Silver Fork awards (2009). He was the first Cuban chef to obtain the distinguished Michelin Star and remained in the Michelin Guide for 3 years. He didn’t maintain this status because it entailed far too much effort and ended up being stressful. Any of these awards would make it easy for Alberto find work at any first-rate restaurant in the world.

He is also married in Italy, “happily,” according to him. His wife came to visit him in Cuba a month ago. “We’ve been married 14 years.”

HT: If you were so successful in Italy and you’re also happily married, why did you return to Cuba?

Alberto: Because I think it’s time. I believe that, if they let us, we are the ones best qualified to fix the mess we’ve got here. I want to contribute in some way.

HT: You’re a successful chef. You could have opened a luxury restaurant or cafeteria, anything. Why a bakery?

Alberto: Because of my grandma. She was dying of cancer, and the last thing she asked for was a bit of bread. When we placed it in her mouth, she said: “This isn’t bread.” It was the bread they sell in Sylvain. Perhaps it was sour, or her palate had been affected by the illness, the chemo.

When I was a kid, my grandma used to bake us bread. It was a whole-wheat bread, but I only discovered that once in Italy. We thought it was regular bread at the time. She would make it with roasted maize and pumpkin seeds. She would tell us she had met scientist Carlos J. Finaly and that he had recommended pumpkin seeds as an anti-parasitic. She would also use the powder milk imported from Russia. She would make really good bread, with great consistency. We learned how to prepare bread dough with her. I got the whole-wheat formula I use here from her, it’s already 86 years old. In addition to using whole-wheat flour, we give the bread consistency and texture with different types of cereals and seeds I can import from abroad.

HT: Do you use the whole-wheat flour they sell here?

Alberto: Of course. I use many of the products they sell here: the white and whole-wheat flour and the bran. I import the seeds and cereals.

When I ask him if there are any establishments in Cuba that sell products at wholesale prices, he replies that there are: “Carlos Tercero, Yumuri, Ultra…the same places you shop at.” I finally got the irony.

Alberto: There are no suppliers for those of us who own restaurants or cafeterias. That said, private businesses are better than State ones, everyone says that. Can you imagine what would happen if we could buy at wholesale prices? We also pay really high taxes. I’m paying unbelievable electricity bills.

HT: Why did you set up your store in Centro Habana, where people have low incomes and bread-eating habits aren’t exactly widespread? Wouldn’t you have more chances of succeeding in Miramar or Vedado?

Alberto: This is the best place to set up shop. It’s where the value of things is being rescued and where people need it most. I told you before I wanted to do something for people. Where am I going to do it, in Miramar? This is where everything’s falling down. A building collapsed and killed two medical students here. People in Miramar don’t need anything. Everyone wants to open up their business in Miramar.

Alberto was also born in Centro Habana. Today, he lives four blocks away from where he was born. When he opened his store, he tried to fix the sidewalk where his establishment is located, but the local government didn’t allow it. Repairing the section of granite floor in front of the entrance (they also wouldn’t let him fix the entire floor) earned him a 1,500 peso fine, because he didn’t use the same granite that was there.

HT: But it’ll be very hard for people who live here to be able to buy your bread.

Alberto: We always work something out. There are people who come for the whole-wheat bread with less money and we still give it to them, because they need it for health-related reasons. I’ve offered some elderly people who live nearby free bread. Some don’t come because they feel embarrassed.

While talking, Alberto pulls out the dough prepared using whole-wheat flour, to mold the bread and stick it in the oven. I tell him I also make whole-wheat bread from time to time, but that I don’t have an oven and have to take the dough to a friend’s house to bake the bread.

Alberto: Forget about an oven. Put the dough in a vessel and the vessel in a pot with boiling water, as though you were making flan or pudding. The idea is to heat up a resistant material. I think I mentioned this on a radio show a few years ago. But, since I didn’t live in the country, I don’t think they aired the show.

Two days after the interview, I put Alberto’s suggestion to the test. The result was sheer success.

HT: Your store is something of a risky enterprise also, because you have a peso-store bakery next to you, with prices that are far more affordable. A few steps away, there’s also a Sylvain and, even though it’s more expensive than the peso bakery, it has lower prices than you do. How do you manage to compete with them?

Alberto: Quality. I have a shop window that lets people see everything we do, there’s no secret. As you can see, it’s all done by hand, as it was done centuries ago. We’ve also brought back the rolling pin, which is no longer used at bakeries. No one wants to go to so much trouble.

Alberto walks away for a moment to check on the bread being baked in the oven and I take the opportunity to do something I’d wanted to do from the start (and which Alberto considers very important): talk with his employees. “Without them, I’m nothing,” he says.

Dayron Pedroso, a professional trumpet player, has learned to bake next to Alberto. He explains to me how they bake without yeast.

Dayron: We use natural leavening such as honey, sugar and things that ferment naturally.

HT: What type of cheese do you use for your pizzas?

Dayron: The supplier makes it using a formula Alberto gave him. It produces a cheese that’s very similar to mozarella (Alberto later explains to me he gives him the citric acid and that the formula is the same one used to make Grano Pagano, a type of cheese sold in Italy).

HT: Isn’t it easier to buy it at the store? They sell it at several places.

Dayron: The problem here is the reliability of suppliers. There’s mozarella at stores now, but it can disappear overnight, and we need to have a steady supply.

It’s Guillermo Mitjans’ first day at work. He is also new to the trade. He has a degree in hydraulic engineering.

HT: Why work in a bakery when you have an engineering degree?

Guillermo: Engineering doesn’t give me enough to support myself and my family.

Jorge Sarmientos has a post-secondary degree in transportation and is the only employee who’s worked in a bakery before (“as a janitor,” he says). He’s learned the trade with Alberto and has been at the store since it opened, almost five months ago.

HT (to Alberto): I’ve noticed your three employees are either black or mixed race. Is that a coincidence?

Alberto: They’re the ones who came looking for work. I think that, when they see the owner is black, like they are, they feel less intimidated, and I am grateful for that. But, of course, I have nothing against white people. Nicolas Guillen once said: “blacks and whites, all thrown together in the mix.”

Something that also caught my eye the first time I came into the store is a poster of Martin Luther King, with the famous phrase “I have a dream,” affixed to one of the windows. Alberto tells me it was accompanied by a poster of Malcolm X, with quotes of his.

Alberto: A gentleman came in and said: “Bread or politics?” I didn’t understand what he meant and he pointed at the two posters. He said that the photos and quotes could be taken to mean that I was using the store to promote political ideas. Since I am not at all interested in politics, I took down the Malcolm X poster, which seemed to be the more problematic of the two, and asked whether he had any problems with the Martin Luther King. He said he didn’t, that, ultimately, all there was there was a dream.

Before leaving, I simply have to ask about the store’s name.

HT: Why “SalchiPizza”?

Alberto: At first, I wanted to make and sell blood sausages. But getting one’s hands on lamb tripe is hard here, so I decided to open this business…and kept the original name.

Editors Note: The exact address is Infanta #562 e/ Zapata y Valle. Centro Habana

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18 thoughts on “From Italy to Centro Habana: The Story of SalchiPizza

  • July 27, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Nice to know he is still there, will visit some day.

  • July 12, 2018 at 10:14 am

    I visited the store 2 weeks ago in Cuba. We spent the whole afternoon there and talking to the Chef. I’m glad you asked some of the questions we want to ask but didn’t. It’s a very inspiring story and I wish there are more ppl doing this in Cuba.

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