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
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
“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.”
“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
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.
Inspired — and named after — the former award-winning bourbon bar (named one of the world's three best bourbon bars in 2008 by Whisky Magazine) attached to deSha’s now-shuttered Lexington, Ky., location, the Kentucky-style Horse & Barrel Bourbon House is the latest in the area's ever-growing collection of bourbon-focused drinkeries, joining MainStrasse's/Molly Wellmann's Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and Northside's The Littlefield.
The bar, which is on the ground floor and seats about 40 (the upstairs will function as an events space, with space for 100-150 people and various complete event packages) offers 80 different bourbons, several flights and bourbon cocktails, plus a small menu of shareable plates with a Southern theme. The savory snacks and desserts run $6.50-$12, and include items like chicken tenderloin flash-fried and tossed in Maker's Mark barbecue sauce; gouda mac and cheese smothered in pulled pork with a Maker's Mark barbecue sauce; and a Queen City Pie, with bourbon, pecan, chocolate and banana served with salted caramel ice cream.
Their $9 bourbon cocktails range from a fruity Old Fashioned Woodford Reserve Personal Selection — orange, cherry, simple syrup, Angostura Bitters — to the refreshing Mint Julep Maker’s Mark. The premium bourbon selection also includes Old Forester Birthday 2014 Edition, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, George T. Stagg and Woodford Reserve Personal Selection (this bourbon is only available at Tavern Restaurant Group locations, which has personally curated bourbons from both Woodford and Buffalo Trace).
Horse & Barrel also does happy hour, available from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. The “Old” One & A Cold One special includes your choice of any draft beer and one shot of the “Olds” for $5. The “Olds” include: Old Crow, Old Forester Classic, Old Grand-Dad 80 and Old Overholt Rye.