A newsmaker you should know: Foreign exchange student returns here to open restaurant

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It reads more like a novel than real life: A young Spaniard was so impressed with his host country during a high school year abroad that he gave up an established career and returned to share his cultural heritage with Americans.

But that's exactly what Gonzalo Cembrero did when he opened the restaurant Pallantia in Greensburg in October 2011.

The 35-year-old native of Palencia in northern Spain attended Greensburg Central Catholic High School as a junior in 1994 while living with the David Kelley family. "They helped me to have a great experience. I fell in love with the country and the culture," Mr. Cembrero said. "I'm part of their family and they're part of my family."

After high school, he earned degrees in business administration and in international business in Madrid and completed a special graduate program at UCLA Berkeley. By 2007, he held a secure position with the Spanish governmental institute that oversees aerospace research.

But pleasant memories of childhood days in his grandmother's kitchen, where he learned to cook, kept surfacing.

"She bought a stool so I could reach the counter. I was 6 or 7. That's how I got my passion for cooking. My grandma is a fantastic cook. She got me into it," Mr. Cembrero said. His interest continued through college where he cooked for himself and his roommates.

He wanted a career that would combine his grandmother's recipes for wholesome, healthy food and the pleasure of sharing at the table. And he knew time was running out for such a major directional change.

"This has been a dream from as long as I can remember, bringing a taste of Spain to this area. I had reached an age when I had to decide. Do I want to chase my dream or forget about my dream?"

Establishing a new restaurant is never easy, but Mr. Cembrero's educational background and the work ethic he learned early at his parents' business had prepared him. He's encouraged by patrons of his Greensburg restaurant who travel from Pittsburgh and Ligonier and by the growing word-of-mouth effect of social media. He beamed with enthusiasm when he talked about the team he has assembled of two full-time and four part-time employees, whom he thinks of as family.

"I'm very proud of all of them," Mr. Cembrero said. "They understand the concept of authentic homemade recipes from Spain. Their commitment to the project translates to the [customer] experience. We work like a team. It's a small business, a family business. That's the philosophy."

Pallantia, Mr. Cembrero explained, is the Latinized name of his hometown, dating to the historic occupation of Spain by the Romans. The restaurant's signs and website are done in purple, his hometown's color, and a town crest hangs on the walls among photographs of castles, churches and other historic buildings from the area. Grape vines and fruit clusters hang arbor-like over the small bar area. Spanish music plays softly. Picasso's painting "Guernica" is reproduced on the menu, as is the artist's drawing of Don Quixote, all hallmarks of Spanish culture.

The central focus, though, is on the food, from fresh bread accompanied by a Spanish smoked paprika-infused olive oil dip to house-made sangria and desserts such like leche frita (fried milk) and flan.

Tapas -- small portions of food meant to be shared -- and rice-based paella, which he calls the "national dish," are restaurant specialties.

"To eat tapas-style is to eat by whim, free from rules and schedules," Mr. Cembrero wrote on the restaurant website, where he traces the origins of tapas to the 13th century.

Mr. Cembrero imports some of his ingredients to ensure that flavor and texture are truly Spanish. Among those ingredients are chorizo (pork sausage), manchego cheese and Jamon Serrano (ham), all prepared in traditional fashion and with regard to humane treatment of animals.

Rice is imported from Valencia, which Mr. Cembrero said is the legendary birthplace of paella. "That's grandma's recipe. She will kill me if I don't use the right rice."

Mr. Cembrero shops in the Strip District once or twice a week and uses local distributors for other supplies. Everything is made from scratch.

"You can even call it a slow-food restaurant. You want to enjoy your meal," he said. "That doesn't mean it takes forever."

When he was setting up his business, sales representatives of large food distributors would stop by. He'd listen politely and then tell them, "I can't use any of your products."

"They were all pre-made, pre-packaged," he explained.

"It's a good thing and a bad thing to be so unique. People play it safe. But once they try -- they take the first step coming through that door -- they love it. People who have been to Spain will recognize the food. And to people who haven't been to Spain and come, I say 'Now you have been to Spain.' "

Mr. Cembrero said he "could have chosen the easy road and stayed with the family business, but I decided to build my own road."

For someone who has taught tai chi, given therapeutic massage, competed in swimming and martial arts, and traveled to locations as far-flung as Cuba, Thailand, Russia and Jordan, building his own road probably was inevitable.

Pallantia is at 6044 Route 30 West. Information: 724-837-8272 or www.pallantiatapas.com.

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Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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