Cartagena is simply a great a place to eat. Have you ever tried pig that has been raised on raw coconut? Quite good. Ditto Chinese food where the greens are hibiscus leaves. When you connect Cartagena to the rest of the world, interesting becomes amazing.
Elena Stoico and Juan David Urrea, the husband-and-wife chef-owners of Andante Allegro Vivace, a chic 20-seat hot spot hidden in the stone maze of the Old City, are typical of the newly arrived restaurateurs. They were living and thriving in Milan during its pre-crisis go-go years, when Urrea, then 31, was a high-flying publicist. In 2008, he lost his job as the air went out of Europe's economic balloon.
For the next year, the pair had a lot of time to think. Eventually, they thought of the country Urrea had left as a child—Colombia. "We saw no opportunity in Italy, under Berlusconi," Stoico told me. In Cartagena, they found opening their first restaurant surprisingly easy. "We simply rented the space, and got started," Urrea said, switching to Italian when Spanish failed him. He wondered at the lack of bureaucracy in Colombia. In Italy, he told me, the opening would have demanded a staggering pile of licenses, fees, and delays. "We would still probably be going though all the hoops."
Now in their second year, Andante Allegro Vivace is a vertical showplace of sleek design, befitting, well, Milan. The restaurant's story repeats itself at stylish Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese eateries tucked into the cool stone alleys.
Europeans are not the only culinary newcomers. Until recently, Maria Nevett was a political scientist working under Venezulan President Hugo Chávez. Now she is the darling of the Cartagena food scene, developing scores of exotic flavors at a small gelateria favored by, among others, the Colombian first lady and vacationing fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Nevett is an elegant telenovela blonde. Her story has been a favorite of women's magazines in Colombia. "Work in political science under Chávez had become impossible. There's no freedom. So, I said private goodbyes to friends and family, and left quietly, by night bus from Caracas. When the bus finally reached the Colombian border, dawn was breaking." The expression on her face is firm, and pleased. "I've never looked back."
Nevett hired an expert from Italy to teach her the art of making gelato. Scores of unique local fruits, nuts, and spices (with local cream and sugar) create a huge array of flavors that are both delicious and true. And in most cases, they would be impossible to duplicate elsewhere.
Colombia's own diversity is the third source of culinary inspiration. Diana Uribe is from Chocó, a hot, rainy, and predominantly Afro-Colombian coastal province. Her family moved from region to region throughout the eighties and nineties, tracing the Colombian military's whack-a-mole efforts at stabilization during a period in Colombia's history now known simply as "La Violencia." They wound up in Cartagena and stayed.