By Regina M. Ernst
Many of us remember that fateful day during PST when we sat down to what appeared to be an unsuspicious spaghetti dinner with our first host families, only to discover that the pale red sauce clinging from the steaming pasta was ketchup. It’s registered in our collective memory, that moment when we discovered we weren’t in Kansas anymore, that even the things we imagined we could take comfort in were always going to be a tad different.
That fact is true. Things are different here en la costa. Sometimes, those differences make us miss home terribly, and other times, those differences make us forget all about what we once knew. There’s one restaurant in Cartagena that accomplishes just that.
Known to the Cartagena volunteers as “the pasta place,” I Balconi is the place to go when looking for a delicious meal and a comfortable dinning experience. It awaits us in its convenient central location, just above the famous Cafe Havana on Media Luna in Cartagena (the same street as the Peace Corps hotel).
My first visit was based on a student’s recommendation. My boyfriend and I wandered over for a lazy dinner with few expectations. I had been to many restaurants around Getsemani, and they were all similar in quality, good enough. I figured this place would be similar. We each ordered separate pasta dishes: Vegetariana and Boloñesa. Before the pasta came, the server brought us a free small loaf of hot fresh bread, accompanied by olive oil and vinegar and a cup of freshly shredded parmesan cheese. We scarfed that down, noting the bread’s perfect balance of crispy exterior and fluffy interior (ideal for soaking up the oil and vinegar mix).
After that surprise, I expected to wait the average amount of time (long) to be served, but the servers were prompt, and out came our heaping pasta dishes. We dug in, and after our first bites, we gasped simultaneously. The chefs at I Balconi are masters of flavors. We were making audible sounds of pleasure with each bite. The most difficult part of eating at this restaurant was deciding whether to finish our huge portions in one sitting (once you start, it’s hard to stop), or to save some for later.
Since that first dinner, we’ve gone back countless times, always trying new items on the menu, waiting, naturally, to be slightly disappointed by something, but it never happens. Everything we’ve tried has been incredible: the various pastas, the lasagna, the pizzas, the salads.
My fellow Cartageneras agree, and given that the amount of pasta served is definitely enough to share between two people, our group frequents the restaurant as a cheap and high-quality option for paydays. Unless we plan to split a dish, prices range from $12mil to $30mil. I always get out under $15mil, am fully satisfied, and often take away a doggie bag with leftovers large enough to make a whole other meal. The restaurant accommodates large groups and vegetarians without notice.
Those of us who’ve eaten at I Balconi now share a new memory, that moment when delicious pasta made us forget about the things we missed from home.