Pallantia owner brings recipes, ingredients from Spain to Hempfield

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Gonzalo Cembrero was an exchange student from Spain in 1994 when he attended Greensburg Catholic High School and “fell in love” with the United States.

After returning to Spain and completing his education, he spent his young adult years in business management and government, returning here several times to visit the Kelley family, his American hosts.

“I've always wanted to return here,” Cembrero says, his fluent English tinged with only a slight Spanish accent. His excellent English comes courtesy of his year here and private English lessons his mother, Maria Angeles Cembrero, insisted he and his brother take. Cembrero is trilingual. After a year studying in Paris, he also speaks French.

All along, Cembrero wanted to be an entrepreneur and bring the taste of Spain to the area. And so he has. Cembrero returned to Westmoreland County two years ago and opened Pallantia Tapas y Paella from Spain restaurant in March 2012 in Hempfield. There, he prepares the traditional dishes of Spain using his grandmother's authentic recipes.

“Pallantia” is the Latin for Palencia, Cembrero's ancient hometown in northern Spain. Pallantia is also the name of his parents' business there, so Cembrero adopted Pallantia as the name of the restaurant.

The restaurant offers traditional Spanish tapas, small plates of various savory foods such as Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp sauteed with wine, for $9.50) and creamy Croquetas de Bacon (croquettes filled with bacon, for $6.50).

“To eat tapas-style is to eat by whim, free from rules and schedules,” the restaurant menu states. “It is meant for those who wish to enjoy life to the fullest and love to spend time with friends.”

Bar tables, stools and a long wall bar encourage tapas sampling and sharing, and imbibing homemade sangria and other beverages, including Spanish wines and beers.

Tapas date to the 13th century, when Spanish King Alfonso X el Sabio (The Wise) found eating small portions of food during the day was easier on his stomach.

Pallantia also offers a variety of traditional entrees from Spain, including a different paella each day, from Paella de Pollo (chicken breast and vegetables) for $13 to Paella Marinera (seafood paella) for $18.

Cembrero grew up helping his grandmother cook paella. He uses imported rice from Valencia, Spain, in his grandmother's recipes. Paella originated in the Valencia region of Spain and uses either bomba or calasparra rice, saffron and olive oil.

Desserts all run $5, including traditional flan and torrijas, a Spanish bread pudding.

Doing some of the renovation work himself with the help of friends, Cembrero, 36, of Greensburg, wanted to create the illusion of an outdoor Spanish bistro. He chose arches, rough plaster, wrought iron chandeliers from California and ornate lampposts to add to the Old World ambiance.

About 50 diners can enjoy viewing large photos of castles in Spain, including in Cembrero's home county of Castile and Leon. Another large photo features the annual running of the bulls at the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona.

A poster in the bar features a performance of renowned bullfighters Julian “El Juli” Lopez and Jose Tomas. Inserted in the poster is the name of his American host “father,” Dave Kelley of Irwin. Cembrero had given the poster to Kelley, who later suggested Cembrero display it in the restaurant. Cembrero also displays a statue of Spain's premier literary hero, Don Quixote, and a small reproduction of a well-known Christ figure in Northern Spain.

“People who come here say, ‘This reminds me of Spain,'” Cembrero says. “And, if you haven't been to Spain, come here — after eating here, you will have been to Spain.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

Paella Marinera (Seafood Paella)

Native of Spain Gonzalo Cembrero grew up helping his grandmother, Irene Marcet, make traditional paella, which he considers “the most important gastronomic ambassador of Spanish cuisine.” He uses Spanish saffron and bomba rice imported from Valencia, Spain, which makes for a creamy, satisfying dish. The restaurant's Paella Marinera, or seafood paella, is a tasty meal to make any time and is especially appropriate for Fridays in Lent.

One of Cembrero's secrets: Don't stir the paella after adding the large shrimp.

3 ounces olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 ounces dry white wine

1 fresh tomato, grated

3 full calamari with tentacles, white hood sliced

1 dozen littleneck clams, shells closed

1 dozen mussels, shells closed

2 dozen small shrimp

1 23 cups bomba rice imported from Spain

3 13 cups water

Salt to taste

1 dozen large shrimp

Pinch of saffron from Spain

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan over medium heat. Place the garlic in the oil and saute briefly, then add the white wine. To this, add the fresh tomato and stir briefly, then add the calamari (see photo 1), clams and mussels (photos 2 and 3). Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat until the mussels and clams open. Add the small shrimp and combine. Then add the rice (photo 4) and mix with the water; salt to taste. Stir until evenly distributed, then do not touch the mixture. Add the large shrimp and a pinch of saffron.

Turn the heat to medium-low and cook for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed (photo 5).

Makes 2-3 servings.

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