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Squirrel Hill's lost a step with no Tango

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Tango's time has passed.

Brown paper now covers the front windows of the Tango Cafe in Squirrel Hill. After a memorable nine-year run, Pittsburgh's only Argentinean coffeehouse has closed its doors.

The Tango was no Starbucks offering its mass-produced lattes and bistro boxes over the piped-in strains of songs from "The Help" soundtrack. The cafe almost certainly was the only place in town where you could purchase a handcrafted sheep's-wool shawl with your cappuccino.

Regulars are lamenting the loss of such a unique place.

"We're like a little family, and this was something that shocked us all," said Roger Day, 60, of Squirrel Hill, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Departments of Biomedical Informatics and Biostatistics. "We're all pretty miserable over it."

Owner Liliana Petruy opened the cafe in 2003, shortly after leaving her native Argentina to join family members here. The business was a huge gamble. Could a Latino-themed coffee shop succeed 5,000 miles north of Buenos Aires in Pittsburgh's pierogie-prevalent culture?

For years, the answer was "Si."

Petruy, who is back in Argentina and could not be reached, did more with the space than just hawk caffeinated beverages and the occasional empanada.

She let local artists display their work on her walls. She scheduled regular live musical performances. She gave Spanish lessons and dance instruction, including, of course, the tango.

The cafe built a loyal following. In 2008, when Petruy learned her business was in the footprint of a proposed hotel development that ultimately didn't materialize, more than 500 of the cafe faithful signed a petition demanding local leaders save it.

Among the Tango loyalists was Day, who first visited on a recommendation from his son.

"I went in there, and that very first night there was Latin American music playing," he recalled. Day got to know the various musicians and now is a member of several local bands that will appear at Pitt's 32nd annual Latin American & Caribbean Festival next weekend.

Jonathan Auxier of Regent Square described the Tango as "a warm, wonderful place to enter." He discovered the cafe shortly after moving here from Los Angeles to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Tango was where Auxier wrote the majority of his first novel, the recently published children's book, "Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes." He said he'll always remember penning the book there.

But Auxier wasn't so immersed in his writing that he failed to see that the cafe was "an open door to anyone interested in Latin America culture, dance or music, all bundled together in a fantastic atmosphere. It was so much more than just this coffee and sandwich shop. It was a community."

A tightly knit community at that -- but one that ultimately couldn't keep the cafe open in an economy that remains far from booming.

"The restaurant business is hard," Day said. "Liliana deserved better."

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