Restaurant Reviews

Cuban Pizza Tells the Exile Story

The doughy crust is so chewy it almost seems undercooked. A thin char on the bottom lends a crunchy crescendo to each bite. The ruddy tomato sauce is sweet and thick but devoid of the gently spicy aroma of basil and oregano. There's plenty of mozzarella -- Gouda and Parmesan too. But what makes this pizza really unique are toppings like sliced bananas, sticky fried plantains, and delightfully oily picadillo studded with salty green olive rings and sugary raisins.

Pizza cubana might be El Exilio's most unexpected delivery to South Florida. In dozens of small cafeterias, it's a utility meal for the cash-strapped and a quick and flavorful way to cap off a night of drinking.

Cuban pizza isn't the pinnacle of the island's culinary offerings; that distinction belongs to lechón asado. Instead, it is a symbol of the struggle and hardships endured by tens of thousands of families that fled after the 1959 revolution. In the United States, immigrants long ago started pizzerias hoping for a better life and then built them into small empires stretching from Hialeah to Kendall and from Westchester to South Beach.

They couldn't help but make it their own.

No one knows for sure where Cuban pizza was invented. Manuel Montes de Oca, whose family owns five eponymous eateries across Miami, says his father, Manolo, was one of the first to make the dish on the island. He did so in Varadero, a beach town east of Havana, before the revolution. "Tourists would ask where they could go to eat pizza, and he had no reply, so he invented his own," Manuel says.

Ramon Rodriguez Jr., who today owns Rey's Pizza, says his father also made pizza -- in Havana -- well before Castro's revolution in 1959. Ramon Sr. baked inch-thick pies topped with ground chorizo and shrimp in a tangy tomato sauce.

The two families -- the Montes de Ocas and the Rodriguezes -- are the heart of Cuban pizza. Their American journeys seem to have begun in May 1980, when Manolo Montes de Oca loaded his family, including 4-year-old Manuel, onto an overcrowded, 27-foot boat that a relative had shuttled from Miami. After crossing the Florida Straits, the elder Montes de Oca bought a small storefront on Calle Ocho at SW 58th Street adjacent to Rey's Jewelry. He had help from an uncle, who loaned him a little more than $10,000.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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