Argentine Food,
American Dream

by Carol. J. DeFrank

THE GOAL OF ANY THRIVING BUSINESS is to keep the customers happy so they will keep coming back. The El Gaucho Inca restaurant in Fort Myers has obviously mastered their technique on satisfying customers — especially a particular food critic.

Local food reviewer Jean Le Boeuf has visited the eatery several times. He wrote: “I’ve been back to El Gaucho Inca many times since I reviewed it in June and I can honestly say I’ve never been disappointed. It’s not often you find authentic South American food served in an upscale setting by warm and knowledgeable servers. The Gaucho in this restaurant is Argentina-born chef/owner Mariano Maldonado. And Rocio Navarrete, Peruvian manager/owner, is the Inca. Together they’ve crafted a winning menu that showcases the ethnic and culinary diversity found in their native countries.”

High praise for an eatery that opened less than two years ago by a couple with no previous restaurant or business experience and, even more amazing, a chef/ owner who is for the most part, self-taught.

Maldonado’s father moved here many years ago and invited his son to visit him. Mariano accepted the invitation and liked it so much that he decided to move here in 1997. A natural in the kitchen, he landed a job as chef at the Naples Italian American Club, where he remained for three years. However, needing to earn more forced him to take a job in construction, installing granite.

Fast-forward four years. A young woman in Peru, Rocio was preparing to relocate to the United States in hopes of finding better opportunities for her daughters. She, too, landed in Southwest Florida. Did fate play a part in the meeting and development of this relationship? Romantics would say absolutely.

“Mariano was a friend of my brother,” Navarrete said. “One day he called and I answered the phone. We had a great conversation. He asked me for a Peruvian recipe. From there we got more personal. He told me he was divorced and I told him I was too.” That was in 2002. Three years later they were married and now have five children between them.

The couple says that they were encouraged by friends to open a restaurant. “Of course there were some people who said we were nuts,” Navarrete admits. “They said the economy was slow, that many places were closing. They were right of course. The economy wasn’t so good, but we decided to give it a try anyway. We are glad that we believed in our potential and followed our instincts.”

They chose the 1,200 square foot Colonial Street location because Navarrete was a student at Hodges University, next door. “I know a lot of people at the university and they’ve been very supportive. In return we make sure we have a lot of specials, especially for the students.”

Although they were neophytes when they began the business, they now have a system in place that works very well. Rocio explains, “I am responsible for managing the front of the restaurant, which seats 62. That includes taking care of the menus, scheduling, customer service and even waitressing when needed. My husband handles everything in the back.” She is only half joking when she says it took almost an entire year before she was even allowed in the kitchen. She says, “Now I am allowed to help with the pasta once in a while.”

Rocio gives their seven person team a lot of credit for their success. She offers, “They give 100% and together our hard work has paid off. We truly consider our employees a part of our family.”

Maldonato readily admits that he learned a lot about cooking from his family, who has always been in the food business. His father is a chef, his mother specializes in homemade pasta as well as pastries, and his brother Rodrigo is considered one of the best chefs in Miami. His grandmother was a pastry chef and his inspiration.

“We still get a lot of help from Mariano’s mother. She lives in Miami, but comes over every other week-end to make fresh pasta,” Navarrete says. “She brings us the Argentina products that I can’t find here. She’s our Italian influence.”

Besides Italian, they specialize in Peruvian, Argentine, Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Seafood is a significant part of the menu.

Navarrete never misses an opportunity to praise her husband. She boasts, “He has always been passionate about cooking. He loves to create and considers presentation very important. If, for any reason, a customer isn’t satisfied he’ll do whatever it takes to correct the situation.” Needless to say they are the recipients of many customer referrals.

As parents of five children, their kitchen at home is as busy as the one at work. While the couple encourages their kids to participate in the business their youngest is the most interested. “Our five-year-old daughter loves to help. She cleans the tables, and peels the corn. We truly believe that she will be the one who inherits the family talent!” Navarrete says.

The couple’s natural business sense has worked well for them. They have added live entertainment as well as a gift shop that not only sells ethnic items but their homemade specialties. One of the most popular entrees is the parrillaba – Argentina barbeque. It’s made with their own homemade chimichurri sauce that has become so popular that it, too, is sold in the shop.

Other, homemade sauces, the base for various dishes, are also made from scratch. They are family recipes handed down through generations.

All of their effort has paid off. Accolades include rave reviews by customers on websites Urbanspoon, Yelp and TripAdvisor!

Besides Le Boeuf, many other celebrities have enjoyed their food; Senator Ben Cardin, Earl and Thelma Hodges (Hodges University Benefactors) and Congressman Trey Radel frequent the restaurant. But what they really enjoy is all the couples that have chosen El Gaucho as the place to pop the big question. Rocio says, “I’m not sure why, but we have witnessed many marriage proposals. That makes us very happy.”

El Gaucho Inca Restaurant is located at 4391 Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers. It is open Tuesday–Friday 12-9pm, Saturday 12-10pm and Sunday 12-8pm. For more information, call 275-7504. •

from the November-December 2012 issue

She is only half joking when
she says it took almost an
entire year before she was
even allowed in the kitchen.
Rocio says, “Now I am
allowed to help with the
pasta once in a while.”

On some evenings
El Gaucho Inca entertains
diners with live traditional
folk dancing.

Besides Italian,
they specialize in
Peruvian, Argentine,
Spanish and Mexican cuisine.

Chef Maldonado specializes
in seafood, like
Conchitas a la Parmesana
(Parmesan Scallops).