I met Gisella Contini at a gastronomic conference and she invited me to visit her restaurant in Panama City called ‘A Mangiare‘. As soon as she opened her mouth I realized that she was Italian since her Spanish has a strong accent and I thought, this will be a delicious experience.
Gisella says that “to work in a restaurant, you must be very passionate about your work,” and without a doubt, she is. This Italian comes from Torino in the north of the country. She studied architecture but did not feel it was her calling and made a drastic change to the culinary arts. She worked for three years with a chef who was her mentor and then decided to become independent.
I asked her how she ended up in Panama and she tells me that because of her “spirit of adventure” after selling her restaurant because of the crisis in Italy. Her son, Riccardo wanted to start something new but outside of Italy. They started thinking about places and discarding options like Spain and France because they were too close. They had an Italian friend who still lives in Panama and always invited them to visit. They decided that it was a destination far enough and that it would be quite an adventure, so they moved to Panama.
“I’m still doing what I’ve always done in my life, cooking,” since four years ago she set up a restaurant in Panama called La Negra Tomasa, which later changed names to A Mangiare.
Who is La Negra Tomasa?
The first thing I asked was, where did the name come from? If they tell me that I am going to a restaurant called ‘La Negra Tomasa’, I think they will serve Cuban or Caribbean food.
Tomasina was a very dear person to her. Gisella’s mother opened her home to her, since she was an orphan and the nuns wanted her to leave the orphanage so that she could have a family experience. Gisella’s mother said “where four can eat, five can eat” and took her in. She was a very cheerful person and always sang the song of ‘La Negra Tomasa’.
In the hustle and bustle of setting up the new business, she sought comfort in something familiar and the song came to mind. That’s why the restaurant is called like that. She tells me “I do everything as it comes from my heart, sometimes I do not ask myself if it is good or bad”.
What distinguishes A Mangiare restaurant from the rest of the Italian restaurants in Panama is the pasta. They are the only ones who make the pasta by hand. Artisan pasta is made on site but using machines. The linguine is not made by hand but the rest is, including cavatelli, trofie (short pasta), gnocchi, and stuffed pasta like tortellini and tagliatelle. For example, the gnocchi is made them using potatoes, flour, eggs and a little Parmesan cheese, which is her secret touch. Her last experiment has been with gluten-free pasta for coeliacs. Wheat flour is substituted for other types of flour.
Most of the ingredients are found locally with a network of chefs who help her. Others, she brings from Italy, but each time they are less.
Her favorite dish is cavatelli a la pescatore with mixed seafood, as pasta grabs the flavor of the sauce. We ordered an Angus beef carpaccio flavored with truffle oil and flakes of Parmesan cheese. My main course was ravioli over a pumpkin sauce.
I usually don’t order dessert, but we ate a delicious tiramisu.
There are so many delicious options on the menu of A Mangiare that it is hard to select, so I will definitely have to go back. This small Italian establishment is located on the corner of Eric Del Valle Street on Via Veneto in El Cangrejo. You can visit them from 11 a.m. at 3 p.m. and from 5 to 11 p.m. from Monday to Saturday.