It’s a Wednesday, and the line at Cuban Pete Sandwiches on Court Street downtown stretches out the door during lunchtime. Hungry customers don’t mind waiting in line for the only authentic Cuban cuisine in Cincinnati. The staff is prepared, having pre-made 50 traditional Cuban sandwiches at the start of their shift.
The restaurant catches the attention of a Cuban man, who cuts all the way to the front of the line and approaches Nelson Fonticiella.
“This isn’t real Cuban food!” the man tells Fonticiella.
Fonticiella, the restaurant’s owner and general manager, simply tells the surly customer he has no idea. The man admits he has been looking for authentic Cuban food in Cincinnati for years. He hasn’t even been able to find a restaurant that uses Cuban bread for sandwiches.
Of course, he doesn’t believe that the man before him with green eyes, red hair and freckles is Cuban —not until he samples the piece of bread Fonticiella gives him. It’s so good that he orders a Cuban sandwich and eats the entire thing while having a conversation with Fonticiella’s father. Just one sandwich isn’t enough for him, so he orders a steak sandwich and scarfs it down in the store before ordering a chicken sandwich to go.
“A real Cuban guy sat there and couldn’t resist eating two of our sandwiches,” Fonticiella says later. “That’s about as complimentary as it gets.”
He knows for a fact Cuban Pete is the only restaurant in Cincinnati that serves authentic Cuban bread, which he imports from Miami.
The bread cooks up nice and crisp when sandwiches are pressed, giving them the perfect filling-to-bread ratio (as opposed to other styles of bread that can make sandwiches too … bready).
Each week Fonticiella roasts 100 pounds of pork for his sandwiches and tacos. It’s juicy, tender and flavorful.
“This is authentic as it gets. Besides, I’m cooking in an oven instead of burying a pig in the ground,” he says with a laugh. “Eventually I’m going to have to teach someone else how to do it, but I’m having trouble giving up my secret pork recipe.”
The recipe comes from a leather-bound book he found in his grandmother’s attic containing all of his great-grandfather’s recipes. Pedro — or Pete, as he was nicknamed — cooked for his hungry baseball teammates in Cuba. Although he did not make it to the U.S. when the family immigrated to Florida, his recipes did.
Fonticiella’s grandmother began to teach him how to cook when he was seven years old. Now, his great-grandfather Pete’s recipes account for half of what is served at Cuban Pete, including the chicken and steak. The other half are Fonticiella’s creations.
The idea for Cuban Pete began eight years ago when Fonticiella opened a food truck in Lexington, Ky. The business moved to Cincinnati three years ago after Fonticiella frequented the city for concerts and saw the restaurant and music scenes expanding. So far, he has not regretted his decision to move up north.
“The thing I love about Cincinnati is that everyone who is from here or lives here is proud as hell to be from Cincinnati,” he says. “Everyone knows the ins and outs and the history of their city.”
Although he originally intended to open up more Cuban Pete in other cities such as Indianapolis, Fonticiella has decided to stay put in the Queen City. In fact, he loves it so much that a second location will open by the end of the summer. The new store will be located somewhere in northern Cincinnati, he says.
“I want to take the food and culture that has influenced me my entire life and share it with places that don’t really have it,” he says. “Cincinnati is the perfect place to start. Every day, I have people coming up to me telling me it’s the best sandwich they’ve ever had in their life.”
It’s not just the unique foods that makes Cuban Pete an experience — it’s also the interaction with the staff and Cuban culture.
“Ninety percent of the time when it’s not busy, you are going to see me sitting and talking with the customers,” he says as a couple of regulars step into the restaurant. He greets them by name.
While Fonticiella’s father lives in Lexington, he regularly commutes to Cincinnati and hang around Cuban Pete. Fonticiella describes his father as the quintessential loud Cuban; he is always out on the floor talking to customers.
Understandably, customers’ favorite part of Cuban Pete is the food. I enjoyed the authentic Cuban sandwich as well as the Chicky Boom-Boom sandwich. Seasoned, marinated chicken is complemented by the perfect combination of sweet jerk sauce and spicy Sriracha, paired with red onions and tomatoes.
Enjoy hand-cut fries as a side or fried plantains for a sweeter alternative. They’re sweet and enjoyable enough for dessert. You can also get some of Pete’s amazing pork or chicken on a taco, which comes with pineapple cilantro salsa. There are also breakfast options and different variations of the Cuban to try, such as the creative Cincy Cuban with goetta.
The menu will be expanding with healthier options and desserts Feb. 1, with house-made black bean burgers, salads with homemade dressing, and Tres Leches Cake.
All menu items are reasonably priced, especially considering the quality of the food. Cuban Pete serves the only authentic Cuban food in Cincinnati, and Fonticiella goes the extra mile when sourcing his ingredients. He can find his pork, drinks and ingredients for marinades locally from Jungle Jim’s, Findlay Market and Restaurant Depot, but the bread and bolo ham come from Florida.
For more information on CUBAN PETE: cubanpetesandwiches.com