Come along with us for a Mediterranean-style culinary adventure—and a dash of Spanish hospitality.
The atmosphere is festive and intimate, albeit a tad chilly. Porch space heaters are cranked up to full blast as a historic December snowfall is underway. Indeed, when the wind picks up and moves the festive black crepe paper streamers suspended over a nearby gate, the white stuff is visibly accumulating on cars parked outside.
None of us had anticipated the snow.
But then until 48 hours earlier, none of us knew where precisely we’d be supping tonight, either.
Like the evening’s menu, the location is initially part of the “secret,” part of the mystery that adds to the appeal of this culinary adventure. Popular on the East and West Coasts, a Spaniard named Fernando Ortega has brought the “secret supper” trend to San Antonio.
And on this frosty December night, eight of us are game enough to brave the weather and try it.
* * *
“My goal is to show you how to enjoy food and conversation,” Ortega says, opening the first bottle of wine. “Let me teach you.”
As he fills our glasses, Ortega explains how, when he first moved to Texas from Europe, a striking cultural difference stood out to him.
“Food, the experience of food here is different than at home,” he says. “In Spain, we think of eating as enjoying the food, the flavors, and the conversation around the table. Here, in the states, people eat so quickly. They order, they eat, and then it’s ‘the check, the check, the check . . . bring me the check.’ For us, this seems so weird, so foreign.”
While he speaks, Ortega moves catlike around a long table filled with a mix of strangers and friends–nurses, retirees, project managers, and one ravenous writer (yours truly). Together we’ve assembled in Alamo Heights, on Volare Pizza’s small back porch. Some of us were invited by Ortega. Others stumbled upon the event by accident on EventBrite.com.
Curiosity, it seems, is a trait we diners hold in common.
Nothing to be served tonight is from the restaurant’s regular menu. Instead the dishes reflect a creative collaboration between Ortega and Volare’s owner, Eder Marquez.
“This is a consommé. A very traditional soup in Spain,” Ortega says as Marquez places a bowl before me.
The clear golden broth is surprisingly flavorful. A diner asks Marquez about the ingredients. He runs down the list: chicken, assorted vegetables (notably peas), and herbs like rosemary and oregano.
“Volare was our first Texas customer,” Ortega observes as Marquez vanishes back inside the doorway.
A lawyer by training, Ortega says he has spent the last year helping his family’s Andalusian olive oil company, I Love Aceite, establish itself stateside. “My grandfather founded it in 1950. Three generations! But I am the first to bring it to America. We have our own olive grove, our own factory. We’ve been here since 2016. The oil is imported here to San Antonio and goes out to California, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia and even Canada. We are growing.”
While he talks, the soup and an Australian white wine warm us. When the second course arrives, Ortega insists everyone pause before tucking into the plate of horned melon, apple, and kiwi. With graceful panache, Ortega opens fresh bottles of his family’s olive oil and personally pours a drizzle across each fruit plate.
“With this dish you get the sweetness of the fruit and the slight bitterness of the oil. It is a very popular breakfast at home. Very good. Very good.”
He is not wrong.
Beyond Ortega in the distance, there is a murmur of excitement. Leaning forward, I see kitchen staff huddle around what appears to be our next course with their smart phones. Regular customers cast discrete but curious glances in our direction through the doorway and windows. A couple passes on the sidewalk and appear surprised to see us dining out of doors. From the outside looking in, our patio party must resemble an inverted snow globe, with swirls of white flakes dancing around the building and the patio a cozy bubble lit with the soft glow of party lights, candles, and space heaters.
“Peppers, mushrooms, chicken, and squash,” Marquez announces from the doorway.
“Oh, like a kabob!” exclaims someone.
“I’ve never really eaten this way, eaten Mediterranean food,” whispers one of the nurses to her dinner companion. “I think I like it.”
“We should try this with the olive oil,” the lone gentleman at the table suggests. Bottles are passed, and there’s unanimous agreement that the oil better releases the flavor of the dish.
Ortega smiles warmly. We’re learning.
* * *
There’s talk at the table of travel, hobbies, careers, rescue dogs, and children as our hosts fade into the background. The wine, the food,and the oil have loosened us up. Slowly anticipation for the main course begins to manifest, although it’s driven by curiosity more than hunger.
“Osso buco,” I say, eyeing the Australian cabernet Ortega has started to pour. “I bet it’s osso buco.”
My hunch is right. The veal arrives, having been slow cooked in tomatoes and onions and served with a rich, savory risotto. Before we begin—and despite Ortega’s earlier admonition to keep our phones out of sight during the meal, we gleefully snap photographs. Ortega makes a joke about our collective defiance, but he and Marquez appear to relax.
Marquez inquires if anyone would care for more of the fragrant, handmade bread. We invite him to stay a moment, and he pauses just long enough to tell us how he came to be a restaurateur.
“I’m from Mexico, and I worked here for some time. Then the owner decided to sell, so I took over,” Marquez tells us.
And with that morsel of information the chef-owner scurries back to his kitchen.
We complete the main course. Murmurs of gratitude rise up for both the chef and the host. Marquez is gracious and beaming. He jokes that if photos are shared on social media, then perhaps we might suggest his restaurant. We laugh conspiratorially, like we’re all long-time regulars of his or, better still, old friends.
Outside the snow has all but stopped.
Now, speculation rises about business and school closures as Ortega and Marquez move about pouring wine and offering coffee. There’s a revelation, too, that the weather has caused electrical outages in some of our neighborhoods. Those real world concerns recede, however, when the final course arrives—a decadent flan cheesecake topped with an artfully arranged garnish.
“You are all quiet now. I see,” Ortega says merrily.
“We talk together often, Fernando and I, about culture and the way people eat,” Marquez says with a glass of red wine in hand, “and we feel there is a need for a slower pace when dining out.”
“Yes, and while you may find the ingredients elsewhere,” adds Ortega, “if you don’t prepare them the right way and if you don’t make the meal with love, then it won’t be the same.”
On that note we raise our glasses to the chef, the kitchen, the lawyer-turned-importer, and that distant Spanish olive grove that brought strangers together for an unforgettable evening.
Pamela Price is a San Antonio writer who loves good food, nice wine, and–it turns out–flan cheesecake. Throw in a few snowflakes and she’s one happy camper.
• Eder Marquez’s Volare Pizza, long an Alamo Heights favorite, typically serves traditional Italian pizzas, pastas, calzones, salads as well as decadent desserts like tiramisu and cannoli. The full regular menu can be seen on their website. (Rumor has it that Ortega pops in from time to time on Sundays to the help Marquez serve up a traditional Spanish-style brunch.)