There are a lot of Italian restaurants in the world, but in La Paz, Bolivia, on a cobblestone street, is one that serves something you won't find anywhere else in the world. Just follow your nose past the woman in a bowler hat, seated next to fruit for sale, and you'll wind up outside a distinctly indistinct entrance.
The green and red sign says, simply, "Pastas." The restaurant is called Beatrice's Fresh Pastas, named after the chef's daughter. The menu offers 13 kinds of pasta with 13 different sauces — all fresh.
The chef, Marco Schiaparoli, is an Italian who came to La Paz as a tourist, 19 years ago, and stayed to offer Bolivians a taste of Italy. Schiaparoli makes his varieties of pasta from scratch, using different flours. One kind will raise a few eyebrows in the U.S., but the special dish is Schiaparoli's gift to his adopted country.
"I have made this with 5 percent coca flour," Schiaparoli says, of the pasta piled in a red basket. That's right — he's cooking pasta made from coca, the leaf cocaine is made from. As an unprocessed leaf, it is a stimulant, like strong coffee. It's legal in Bolivia, and is part of the traditional culture — usually chewed like tobacco, brewed in tea, or baked in bread. Bolivians will tell you the green coca leaves are rich in vitamins, and help combat the altitude sickness you get high up in the mountains.
On the menu the night we dined with Schiaparoli was spaghetti made with coca flour, and a Bolognese sauce of llama meat. Yes, llamas — those endearingly odd-looking animals, found only in the Andes Mountains.
Schiaparoli boiled up two kinds of coca pasta — one with 3 percent coca flour, the other with 5 percent. "This one tastes stronger," Schiaparoli says of the latter.
After the pasta is set to boil, Schiaparoli begins to make an Arrabbiata sauce, with tomatoes, ham and olives. (That's for the 3 percent coca pasta.) The aroma is intoxicating, and Schiaparoli lives with these delicious smells every day in this hot box of a kitchen.
As sweat beads on his brow, he jokes that he can eat two plates of pasta a day without gaining weight, because his kitchen is like a sauna. But beneath his ironic humor lurks the soul of a passionate cook. His 30-seat restaurant is always full. He's proud that he doesn't need to advertise. The pasta speaks for itself. Schiaparoli's loyal customers have become his friends.
He pours the Bolognese sauce with ground llama into a hot pan. "It's a dish for Bolivia," Schiaparoli announces, as he stirs the sauce, which also features clove, rosemary and bay leaves. Click here for the recipe.
But what about that coca — Is it a drug?
"No," Schiapaaroli tells us. "It has 30 grams of unprocessed coca leaf in it." As Bolivians will tell you, it doesn't become a drug until you add a lot of chemicals. When ABC NEWS sat down for an interview with Bolivia's president, Evo Morales (a former coca farmer, himself), he noted, "The coca leaf, in its natural state, is medicinal, nutritional. The coca leaf mixed with chemical agents, the coca leaf turned into cocaine, is totally different." It's worth noting that the president served us coca tea.
Schiaparoli finishes preparing our dish, and we sit down to eat. To make it a truly Bolivian meal, he opens a bottle of wine — not one that you would find in your local liquor store in the states, but Bolivian wine.
Schiaparoli's pasta, it turns out, is much better than the wine.
The man runs his restaurant with a passionate Italian flare, just as he speaks Spanish — heavily accented. It took this immigrant to Bolivia to invent a truly modern Bolivian dish. Schiaparoli tells us that many of the most famous Italian dishes in the world were made outside of Italy — like spaghetti Alfredo.
And the kicker here at Beatrice's: the price. A plate of pasta is just $2.50, and that includes the coca pasta.
So, how was the pasta? As good as you'll find in the best Italian restaurants anywhere, but with flavor found nowhere else.