From capital to countryside, Argentina beckons.Woody Allen rarely comes to mind in Buenos Aires, but he’s my first thought when I meet Aldo Graziani. With thick, black nerdy glasses and unruly hair, he owns Aldo’s Vinoteca, Buenos Aires’ newest wine restaurant. If Woody Allen represents a certain era’s Jewish New York, Aldo represents today’s Italian-Argentine porteño, a term locals use to identify themselves as residents of the capital. He’s warm, a little crazy, a lover of food and wine, and even a mama’s boy. “I ran a restaurant with my mother,” he tells me, nostalgically mentioning a place they owned when he was younger.
Aldo used to be vice president of the Asociación Argentina de Sommeliers, but with the restaurant it became too much. He’s still overloaded, with a TV show, a radio show and a wine blog, Catas En Vivo (www.catasenvivo.com.ar).
The decor of Aldo’s Vinoteca is streamlined modern, cream lacquer shelves slinking across walls, groaning under a mind-boggling wine selection. Red, moody light glows as waitstaff stroll in crisp, timeless black-and-white, long-aproned outfits, bottles in hand. Built into the art deco Moreno Hotel Buenos Aires, the restaurant reminds me of 1930s Europe. Aldo’s goal is a restaurant with people wearing everything from jeans to Hermés suits and ties. “Our idea is to put the wine in the perfect place, on the table, with a friend,” he says, pushing his glasses up as his head turns, checking everything in motion.
Aldo’s is a nod to the past, yet it’s everything modern about Buenos Aires. That’s why I love the surrounding neighborhood of San Telmo, especially at sunset, when the stucco curlicues and marble maidens of the district’s 19th-century cornices glow golden against the growing twilight. It was Buenos Aires’ wealthiest neighborhood until the 1870s yellow-fever epidemic caused those with means to flee. Close to the ports, San Telmo soon filled with struggling immigrants. Today the area is gentrifying, but decayed charms remain amid the buildings overgrown with vines. Next to these, you’ll find meticulously renovated structures like the Hotel Babel, a labor of love for partner Conyers Thompson. A New Yorker, Conyers says he likes San Telmo for its “unique bohemian feel and diverse range of both porteños and foreigners you won’t find elsewhere in the city.” Conyers is here to work, but Buenos Aires, he finds, has a “freer pace and, certainly for me, a better quality of daily life” than New York.
San Telmo is synonymous with tango, performed in showhouses like La Ventana Barrio de Tango or El Querandí Tanguería. The latter is intimate and authentic, evolving over decades from men dancing together in brothels to curry favor with the ladies to today’s leggy style, with exaggerated kicks and flourishes. Even these movements are grounded in history, with stiletto heels safely echoing their namesakes’ violent bidding in a younger, gangster-run Buenos Aires.
Free tango, though, is everywhere you look, especially Sundays when antique dealers and live dancing overtake San Telmo’s Calle Defensa and Plaza Dorrego. The most famous dancer is the tall, intense El Indio, whose real name is Pedro Benavente. It’s easy to become entranced by his sinewy steps and stamina as he dances for hours, sweat trickling from his forehead, his deep love for tango evident in every movement.