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    Eat & Swig

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    Cena, if you’re wondering, means the same thing in Spanish and Italian: dinner.

    Fernando Martinez’s current resume (if you’re wondering) reads like a must-eat list of Louisville restaurants: He owns Guaca Mole, El Taco Luchador, Coconut Beach Tacos and Cerveza, Mussel and Burger Bar, and Cena. Martinez, who made a name for himself in Louisville at Havana Rumba and Mojito, is chef in some capacity at each of his restaurants. “We understand food,” the 41-year-old says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s southern, Spanish, Cuban, Italian.”

     

    The interior of the restaurant hasn’t changed much since the space housed the short-lived (but much-praised) Place Downstairs, a fine-dining experiment that opened in March in the basement of Mussel and Burger Bar and transitioned to Cena before August. Martinez is practical about the shift. “We had really high expectations for the Place Downstairs because we thought we were doing something really unique and modern and different,” he says. “But the people around here, that’s not what they want, and people from different parts of the city don’t come to J-town for fine dining. We were banking on more people coming from upstairs (the wait at Mussel and Burger bar on the weekends is often one or two hours). But it’s hard going from burgers to revised steak with bone marrow croquettes. And, you know, you’ve got to give people what they want.”

    Allan Rosenburg, 38, Cena’s chef de cuisine, was part-owner/chef at Papalinos before joining Martinez at the Place Downstairs. Both men are broad-chested and gregarious, with quick, expansive laughs. Martinez and Rosenburg have been friends for 12 years, and it shows in the way they casually praise one another.

    “Before I worked for Fernando I used to literally eat myself sick at Guaca Mole,” Rosenburg says.

    Rick Moir, manager at Cena, has a different theory as to why Rosenburg and Martinez get along so well. “They are both obsessed with pork,” he says.

    The move to Cena was a natural progression, a growth spurt that addressed the woes plaguing the Place Downstairs. “We had nights that we did really well, but we had nights we only did seven covers,” Martinez says. Rosenburg adds: “You can’t survive on a special-occasion restaurant.” They wanted to create an atmosphere that was more relaxed, more family-friendly. “People don’t want to be stuck in a place eating for two hours any more. It’s a reality of the business,” Martinez says.

    Offerings at Cena are southern Italian, what Rosenburg calls “Grandma’s farmhouse Italian.” The menu features easily recognizable classics like ravioli ($20), as well as contemporary dishes like goat cheese frittos with verdant basil pesto and homemade truffle honey ($9).

    “White people love fried cheese,” I say.

    “White people love fried cheese,” Martinez says, cracking a huge, dimpled grin. “You said it! Not me! Years ago, I used to work in Sellersburg, Indiana, and I was the only foreigner in the place. It was me and a bunch of rednecks. And I said, ‘You guys are a bunch of Yankees! The only real redneck in this place is me, because it doesn’t get more southern than Cuba!’”

    Cena’s portion sizes are hefty, built for sharing. Many of the pastas are made in-house, but Rosenburg says some dishes are traditionally made with dried pasta, like the carbonara used in the spaghetti ($15). “Made the old-school way with bronze dies, which makes it rough, which means it captures the sauce,” he says. It’s fine dining, without the fine-dining price tag. Rosenburg and Martinez say Cena’s already doing “300 percent better” than the Place Downstairs.

    Martinez attributes his business strategy to one gleaned from author Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. “After awhile, you see so many cows they are not different any more,” Martinez says. “But what happens if all of the sudden you see a purple cow in the middle of the road? You go crazy about her again, right? So I tell myself, ‘From now on, every place that I open, it has to be a purple cow. I don’t want to be like everybody else.’”

    Images courtesy of Chris Witzke. 

    This article appears in the October issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here

    Elizabeth Myers's picture

    About Elizabeth Myers

    Big fan of bacon and bourbon, deep fried anything, sweet tea and sweet nothings.

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