By Wendy White Philcox
Photography by Tammy Harrow
The path to La Pentola’s downtown St. Augustine location was nothing short of a quest for Jorge and Susan Talavera, the husband-and-wife team behind this elegant restaurant in the heart of historic downtown St. Augustine. When the couple moved to the Ancient City in 1996, they came on board with Cortessés Bistro, as part of a massive and masterful reinvention. Leading the front and back of the house there as well, the Talaveras were instrumental in establishing Cortessés as one of Northeast Florida’s premier restaurants.
When a modest, chef-owned Italian restaurant located on U.S. 1 South came up for sale, Susan and Jorge saw a diamond in the rough and an opportunity to pursue their dream of owning their own business.
After a full-scale renovation of both dining rooms and kitchen, Susan and Jorge kept the name—La Pentola, which means “the cooking pot” in Italian—mainly because the neon sign had been grandfathered. They quickly earned a reputation as the go-to restaurant for people who appreciate fine cuisine and excellent service.
After operating for four and a half years in that location and searching for a freestanding building they could purchase for more than two years, they literally stumbled upon an ideal location in the historic district, which had just been offered for sale by owner. La Casa de Herrera, built in 1762 as a private residence during the city’s second Spanish period, had it all: architectural and historic character, a courtyard fronting Charlotte Street, plenty of interior space for conversion to dining and kitchens, and even its own parking lot behind the building. They purchased the building, which had been used as an antiques store for several years, and launched into a complete rehabilitation with Gaere MacDonald as the contractor. Gaere, having been the chef-owner of The Raintree Restaurant for many years, brought his extensive knowledge of professional kitchen and restaurant design to the table and, in 5 months, in November of 2003, the new La Pentola was in operation.
A native of Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico located in the central region of Jalisco in the western-pacific area of the country, Jorge credits his mother for his interest in cooking. One of eleven siblings and with five cousins also living in their household, his mother was a no-nonsense cook who got three meals a day on the table. “With that many people to cook for, she had to be firm,” says Chef Talavera. “She would say, ‘This is not a restaurant! If you want to eat, you have to be here on time. Otherwise, you need to learn to cook for yourself!” And so he did, but restaurants were not his chosen profession initially. He worked as an accountant/comptroller in the security division of a bank in Mexico until, at the age of 30, he moved to the United States.
Susan and Jorge met when he landed a job cooking at an inn where she was working—The Black Horse Tavern and Inn in Mendham, N.J. Susan had spent her teen years in St. Augustine, where her parents had retired and still reside. After marrying, the couple decided to head south to be closer to family and pursue new opportunities.
Susan, who has run front-of-house operations since the duo united as a culinary team, also handcrafts La Pentola’s irrestible desserts. At least one day a week, Susan dons her apron as she whips up delectable house favorites like the melt-in-your-mouth tiramisu, German chocolate cake, and panna cotta with fresh berries.
La Pentola’s menu changes seasonally and always features fresh local seafood, meats, game, produce, and herbs that Chef Talavera sources from several local purveyors and farms.
Seafood is always a highlight of Chef Talavera’s menu. He always has several inventive yet classic preparations for fresh catch on the menu. For example, fresh blackened mahi mahi will be topped with a dollop of zesty chimichurri (a classic Argentinian sauce consisting of a purée of fresh parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano, and wine vinegar) or red snapper will be topped with a tomato-cream wine sauce dotted with succulent tiny shrimp. Delectable crab cakes are served at lunch as a sandwich and dinner as an entrée. Seafood finds its way into sauces, soups, salads, and appetizers at La Pentola.
And meat lovers will not be disappointed. They love La Pentola’s filet mignon, steaks, veal, and pork tenderloin. Veal osso buco—one of Chef Talavera’s signature dishes—is simmered in herbed tomato white wine sauce then served over porcini mushroom and poblano pepper risotto. “The risotto is my mother’s recipe,” Chef Talavera adds.
Beautiful, seasonal vegetable sides and garnishes are also a signature. If they aren’t an integral ingredient in the dish itself, vegetable accompaniments perfectly complement each plated entrée. For example, Chef Talavera’s Braised Pork Shoulder is served in a plum tomato and guajillo pepper sauce with porcini mushrooms, artichokes, and sweet peas over roasted garlic and spinach mashed potatoes. Eating your vegetables has never been so delicious, and cuisine from several continents has never been so happily married than at La Pentola Restaurant in downtown St. Augustine.
La Pentola serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11-3; dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 p.m., and Sunday Brunch, 10 a.m to 3 p.m. Closed Monday. Banquet and private party facilities available. Open all holidays. Reservations recommended.
“DINING AL FRESCO IS A
YEAR-ROUND OPTION HERE IN ST. AUGUSTINE.”
—CHEF JORGE TALAVERA
“WE PERSONALLY SELECT EVERY
BOTTLE OF WINE ON OUR LIST.
IF WE DON’T LIKE THE WINE,
IT DOESN’T GO ON OUR LIST.”
58 Charlotte Street
Historic Downtown St. Augustine