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Trattoria Etrusco: like eating a cloud

“This pasaje, I am in love with it. It brings the world.”

Diana, 11, Ana ,15, dad Joe, owner Roberto Etrusco, my lasagna.
Diana, 11, Ana ,15, dad Joe, owner Roberto Etrusco, my lasagna.

“Never start a restaurant on the moon,” says my friend John.

“Why’s that?”

“It’ll have no atmosphere, dude.”

Man. Should have seen that coming.

He’s just declined to take the trolley with me south to TJ. “Too late, dude. It’ll be five, six.”

But I have the hots to go.

I think of his “atmosphere” punchline as I enter Pasaje Rodriguez, the arty alley off Revolución. You could never accuse this alley of lacking atmosphere.

Not so much a passage as the coolest meeting place in town.

Like, here’s Grezzia Ruiz, picking up a hot pan of tangzhong. She starts slicing it into squares with a long knife. “Pan Japones,” says the sign next to her. “Tangzhong,” turns out, is pan Japones, Japanese sweet bread.

“This is the lightest bread I have ever made,” Grezzia says. “And when you’ve done it right, it’s like eating a cloud.”

I long to try it, but smells from across the pasaje tell me it’ll have to wait till dessert time. Because now I’m smelling cheesy wafts coming from a little, really little, cafe. Trattoria Etrusco.

Eggplant for vegan lasagna - open sesame!

I look down this passageway of art, food, coffee, old books, young poets, guitar players, jewelry makers, LP sellers, ghosts of the Foreign Club, and maybe the artiest brewery in Tijuana, Mamut (“Mammoth”). That’s where I wanna go.

But first, Cafe Lola for a coffee, to gather my wits. Goth guys and gals sauntering through, looking at Goth jewelry. I slam my Veracruz coffee down the hatch and head next door to where the owner-chef Roberto Etrusco is watching his vegetarian lasagna blister in the oven. Ana has plopped herself between her sister Diana and their dad Joe, to dive into her lasagna.

Trattoria Etrusco, of course, is Italian. It’s a funny thing: Italian food seems to be popping up everywhere south of the border.

“You should eat here,” says Ana, as I hesitate.

Well, I guess there’s an intimacy about sitting right where Roberto’s cooking, washing dishes, preparing pizzas, taking orders, handing out to-goes. Guess I’ll stay.

Grezzia at her shop.

Now he hauls a tray of eggplant slices from the oven, covered in golden melted cheese. “This is for the vegetarian version of lasagna, my weekend special,” he says. A moment later, he’s bringing out another. This time brown and cream eggplant with no cheese, covered only in sesame seeds.

“The vegan version,” he says.

I feel almost guilty asking if he bakes the plain old meaty cheesy lasagna. But I am kind of hungry. He hands me a menu.

First good news: yes, they have lasagna con carne. Second: everything is between 50 and 100 pesos. That’s $2.50 to $5. The lasagnas go for $5. So does the fettuccine in alfredo sauce with breaded Cajun chicken. Penne in albahaca (basil) sauce is 85 pesos — $4.25, and the plate of portobello mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella, prickly pear, alfalfa. Plus you get salad and a slice of bread thrown in. Full-on Greek or green salads are $4.25 too.

Italian tiramisu, $1.75.

So it’s all kind of interesting, but also incredibly light on the pocket.

I go for the lasagna con carne. Roberto approves. He levers off one wide slice of it, oozing with mozzarella and chunks of ground meat, plus salad greens and a big slice of farmhouse bread, toasted. All looks extra good on the colorful plates he has.

Ooh. Nice flavors. “I always use sofrito as the flavor base. Onions, celery, carrots,” says Roberto.

Aha! What they call the Holy Trinity in New Orleans. Gives a nice background to different flavors. The golden pasta is half-crisp on top, soft and naked inside the layers, and leaving a great mess of cheesy stuff at the bottom to scoop up with the bread.

Of course we’re all talking. And everyone seems to know Roberto. Dancers stop by, talking about restarting performances in the CECUT (Centro Cultural, the fantastic ball-shaped museum/cultural complex). “I have been open here since January,” says Roberto. “And yes this year has been an adventure. But now things are extra good.”

My lasagna - plenty of meat.

Turns out, Roberto has had an adventurous life himself, cooking in Africa, Europe (Italy, of course,) and all over the Americas. So why here? “This pasaje, I am in love with it. It brings the world. And the most interesting people.”

The man is right. In the next half hour a choreographer, an art photographer, a friend of Carlos Santana’s music teacher, all gather, chat, move on.

I can’t resist staying for dessert. Tiramisu. (Basically the sponge cake covered in a kind of coffee/brandy mix with powdered chocolate on top.) He brings it out and luscious it is, specially when you figure in the cost, 35 pesos, $1.75.

Oh. Am just leaving when I remember that feather-light pan Japones at the stall across the passage, “Greccas.” (Yes, it means “Greeks.”) And there she still is: Grezzia Ruiz. For a couple of bucks I’m allowed to melt (no need to chew), the lightest, lemon-delicate cake you ever felt in your mouth. Her feather-light tangzhong. Pan Japones. It seems a Japanese chef, Tomotaro Kuzumo, was visiting Berlin in 1960, when he discovered this German recipe and adapted it to Japanese tastes. Back home in Kobe, the bread took off in the 1970s.

“You have to be exact to get this right,” Grezzia says. I have tried a hundred times! The correct temperature! And when you mix it, you must stir it clockwise, or it won’t work.”

I was lucky. Grezzia is only here Saturdays and Sundays. For me, the cake is the perfect climax to my little meal. And out-there enough to fit right in with the Pasaje Rodriguez zeitgeist.

But what about Mamut?

Guess the cerveza will have to wait till next time.

The Place: Trattoria Etrusco, Pasaje Rodriguez, Between Revolucion and Constitucion Avenues. Enter Pasaje Rodriguez from Ave. Revolucion, near 3rd street, Tijuana

Hours: 12pm-7pm, daily

Prices: Lasagna con carne, bread, salad, 100 pesos ($5); also vegetarian or vegan lasagna, $5; spaghetti and meatball, $5; fettuccine, Cajun chicken, $4.25; mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella, with salad, bread, $4.25; Greek salad, $4.25; baba Ganoush, $5; chicken tabaski with huitlacoche (corn fungus), mashed potato, mushrooms, $5; Italian tiramisu, $1.75

Taxis: from the border, around $6

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Diana, 11, Ana ,15, dad Joe, owner Roberto Etrusco, my lasagna.
Diana, 11, Ana ,15, dad Joe, owner Roberto Etrusco, my lasagna.

“Never start a restaurant on the moon,” says my friend John.

“Why’s that?”

“It’ll have no atmosphere, dude.”

Man. Should have seen that coming.

He’s just declined to take the trolley with me south to TJ. “Too late, dude. It’ll be five, six.”

But I have the hots to go.

I think of his “atmosphere” punchline as I enter Pasaje Rodriguez, the arty alley off Revolución. You could never accuse this alley of lacking atmosphere.

Not so much a passage as the coolest meeting place in town.

Like, here’s Grezzia Ruiz, picking up a hot pan of tangzhong. She starts slicing it into squares with a long knife. “Pan Japones,” says the sign next to her. “Tangzhong,” turns out, is pan Japones, Japanese sweet bread.

“This is the lightest bread I have ever made,” Grezzia says. “And when you’ve done it right, it’s like eating a cloud.”

I long to try it, but smells from across the pasaje tell me it’ll have to wait till dessert time. Because now I’m smelling cheesy wafts coming from a little, really little, cafe. Trattoria Etrusco.

Eggplant for vegan lasagna - open sesame!

I look down this passageway of art, food, coffee, old books, young poets, guitar players, jewelry makers, LP sellers, ghosts of the Foreign Club, and maybe the artiest brewery in Tijuana, Mamut (“Mammoth”). That’s where I wanna go.

But first, Cafe Lola for a coffee, to gather my wits. Goth guys and gals sauntering through, looking at Goth jewelry. I slam my Veracruz coffee down the hatch and head next door to where the owner-chef Roberto Etrusco is watching his vegetarian lasagna blister in the oven. Ana has plopped herself between her sister Diana and their dad Joe, to dive into her lasagna.

Trattoria Etrusco, of course, is Italian. It’s a funny thing: Italian food seems to be popping up everywhere south of the border.

“You should eat here,” says Ana, as I hesitate.

Well, I guess there’s an intimacy about sitting right where Roberto’s cooking, washing dishes, preparing pizzas, taking orders, handing out to-goes. Guess I’ll stay.

Grezzia at her shop.

Now he hauls a tray of eggplant slices from the oven, covered in golden melted cheese. “This is for the vegetarian version of lasagna, my weekend special,” he says. A moment later, he’s bringing out another. This time brown and cream eggplant with no cheese, covered only in sesame seeds.

“The vegan version,” he says.

I feel almost guilty asking if he bakes the plain old meaty cheesy lasagna. But I am kind of hungry. He hands me a menu.

First good news: yes, they have lasagna con carne. Second: everything is between 50 and 100 pesos. That’s $2.50 to $5. The lasagnas go for $5. So does the fettuccine in alfredo sauce with breaded Cajun chicken. Penne in albahaca (basil) sauce is 85 pesos — $4.25, and the plate of portobello mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella, prickly pear, alfalfa. Plus you get salad and a slice of bread thrown in. Full-on Greek or green salads are $4.25 too.

Italian tiramisu, $1.75.

So it’s all kind of interesting, but also incredibly light on the pocket.

I go for the lasagna con carne. Roberto approves. He levers off one wide slice of it, oozing with mozzarella and chunks of ground meat, plus salad greens and a big slice of farmhouse bread, toasted. All looks extra good on the colorful plates he has.

Ooh. Nice flavors. “I always use sofrito as the flavor base. Onions, celery, carrots,” says Roberto.

Aha! What they call the Holy Trinity in New Orleans. Gives a nice background to different flavors. The golden pasta is half-crisp on top, soft and naked inside the layers, and leaving a great mess of cheesy stuff at the bottom to scoop up with the bread.

Of course we’re all talking. And everyone seems to know Roberto. Dancers stop by, talking about restarting performances in the CECUT (Centro Cultural, the fantastic ball-shaped museum/cultural complex). “I have been open here since January,” says Roberto. “And yes this year has been an adventure. But now things are extra good.”

My lasagna - plenty of meat.

Turns out, Roberto has had an adventurous life himself, cooking in Africa, Europe (Italy, of course,) and all over the Americas. So why here? “This pasaje, I am in love with it. It brings the world. And the most interesting people.”

The man is right. In the next half hour a choreographer, an art photographer, a friend of Carlos Santana’s music teacher, all gather, chat, move on.

I can’t resist staying for dessert. Tiramisu. (Basically the sponge cake covered in a kind of coffee/brandy mix with powdered chocolate on top.) He brings it out and luscious it is, specially when you figure in the cost, 35 pesos, $1.75.

Oh. Am just leaving when I remember that feather-light pan Japones at the stall across the passage, “Greccas.” (Yes, it means “Greeks.”) And there she still is: Grezzia Ruiz. For a couple of bucks I’m allowed to melt (no need to chew), the lightest, lemon-delicate cake you ever felt in your mouth. Her feather-light tangzhong. Pan Japones. It seems a Japanese chef, Tomotaro Kuzumo, was visiting Berlin in 1960, when he discovered this German recipe and adapted it to Japanese tastes. Back home in Kobe, the bread took off in the 1970s.

“You have to be exact to get this right,” Grezzia says. I have tried a hundred times! The correct temperature! And when you mix it, you must stir it clockwise, or it won’t work.”

I was lucky. Grezzia is only here Saturdays and Sundays. For me, the cake is the perfect climax to my little meal. And out-there enough to fit right in with the Pasaje Rodriguez zeitgeist.

But what about Mamut?

Guess the cerveza will have to wait till next time.

The Place: Trattoria Etrusco, Pasaje Rodriguez, Between Revolucion and Constitucion Avenues. Enter Pasaje Rodriguez from Ave. Revolucion, near 3rd street, Tijuana

Hours: 12pm-7pm, daily

Prices: Lasagna con carne, bread, salad, 100 pesos ($5); also vegetarian or vegan lasagna, $5; spaghetti and meatball, $5; fettuccine, Cajun chicken, $4.25; mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella, with salad, bread, $4.25; Greek salad, $4.25; baba Ganoush, $5; chicken tabaski with huitlacoche (corn fungus), mashed potato, mushrooms, $5; Italian tiramisu, $1.75

Taxis: from the border, around $6

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