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PROVIDENCE — In the basement of his new restaurant, Chef Amilkar Gonell is talking a hundred miles a minute as he spills different colored grains of maize, or corn, in my hands. One variety has shades of blue, a second is white, and another is purple with bright white tips. And like just about everything in Terra Negra Cantina in Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood, they derive from Mexico.
“This corn is what makes it so fresh, and the flavor is totally different,” said Gonell, comparing the corn he uses for making tortillas to commercial corn flour.
Some of the oldest known grain specimens of corn can be traced back to deep caves in Oaxaca, Mexico, around 4500 to 4200 BC. Farmers, Gonell explained, grow corn through a system known as milpa, which is commonly known in New England as the “Three Sisters,” when corn is intermingled with other crops like beans and squash. Eventually, they’re often found together on a dinner table.
But Gonell, who was born in the Dominican Republic and spent the last two decades cooking and developing menus in restaurants in New York City and New England, said the cultural significance of Mexican corn, and the onerous process it takes to make masa for tortillas from scratch, has become an archaic and fading tradition. But not at his establishments.
“We’re doing it the old way, the right way, the real way here,” said Gonell, pointing to a table in the center of the cellar where his team begins working on masa around 7 a.m. Leading me back up the stairs to the cantina’s dining room, Gonell tells me the traditional way of making Mexican food should be “the only way. We don’t allow shortcuts here.”
With Gonell as its executive chef, Terra Negra Cantina will officially open Thursday night, right in the heart of this historically Italian neighborhood. The space, in the ever-changing DePasquale Square, used to be the location for Caffe Dolce Vita, a restaurant owned by nightclub owner Gianfranco Marrocco, from 1992 until he closed it in 2018. The restaurant evolved over time, and welcomed guests upstairs at Hotel Dolce Villa (which is also now vacant). Plaza Bar & Kitchen took its place, serving everything from pizza, pasta, sliders, tapas, and tacos, but it didn’t last long.
Alongside Gonell in developing the menu is his wife Pamela, who is also the restaurant’s sous and pastry chef. Together, they’re highlighting imported ingredients and produce from Mexico, while using traditional Mexican cooking techniques for dishes like memelas, which are hand-made thick corn dough tortillas (they’re soft like Johnny Cakes) filled with lard, beans, and salsa. Or elote, which is tender street corn cooked in a broth with spices, herbs, and salt that’s covered in fresh lemon, mayonnaise, grated cheese and tajín.
Their Empanadas de Maiz is a homemade quesadilla made of corn flour, fried, and filled with quesillo, which is a white, semihard cheese made from pasteurized milk, often called Oaxaca cheese. Their chips are made in house, and avocados are smashed for guacamole every day.
The Gonells also have an interesting backstory, both having moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic, they met while working together in New York City kitchens.
In 2021, the duo broke the World Guinness Record for the largest serving of Mangú, a Dominican-style mashed plantain dish, which was organized alongside chef María Marte, who has earned two prestigious Michelin stars in her career. The mangú was prepared in the shape of the Dominican Republic and was donated to community fridges across Manhattan.
To prepare to open Terra Negra, the couple went to Mexico earlier this year, traveling to various farms and learning how to make Mezcal the old way (which is also prominent on the menu). They lead busy lives.
Amilkar Gonell has a Boston Red Sox employee identification card (he says he’s one of the chefs preparing culturally appropriate Latin food for players) on a lanyard that’s always on him. He’s also a consultant who has helped develop menus for various Latin restaurants, like Mama’s Restaurant & Lounge in Lawrence, Mass.
Pamela Gonell studied to become a medical doctor in Santo Domingo until she was involved in an accident that damaged her leg and forced her to leave school. Instead, she left for Italy, settling in Perugia, where she landed a job as a dishwasher at a local trattoria and worked her way up to begin cooking.
In 2014, she moved to New York City to work under chef Todd Mitgang who has a reputation for emphasizing sustainable cooking practices and social responsibility. She’s taken those teachings to heart at Terra Negra, where she says they’re committed to maintaining a low-waste kitchen.
She’s also added in her own flavor and plating style at the cantina, finding whimsical ways to plate desserts like flan, or churros with an edible chocolate tea cup filled with a silky dulce de leche for dunking. The sweets are served on pink and orange plates that match the hand-painted candy skulls on the walls and the cocktail glasses.
When the pair host their grand opening, it will be the ending to a many months-long preparation process to properly honor the farmers, chefs, and families they met in Mexico. Even their dishes are imported from a small artisan.
“Everything you’re tasting here is way to honor them,” said Pamela Gonell. “It’s our love letter to Mexico.”
Terra Negra Cantina is located at 59 De Pasquale Ave., Providence, R.I. 401-537-7535. Updates are posted on Instagram.