By Autumn Gates
When entering El Gaucho Inca, guests are greeted with a unique fusion of Peruvian, Argentinian and Italian culture that cannot be found elsewhere. While the outside of the building looks unassuming, one step inside will transport you to an entirely different world.
The entryway is welcoming – mood-setting light fixtures, a beautifully crafted bar, and vibrant red-and-black ponchos. Visitors who linger at the bar will likely be offered a Pisco Sour, the traditional drink of Peru and a restaurant staple. These details offer only a glimmer of what to expect when dining at the family-owned restaurant’s newly opened Estero location.
“We treat everyone as a family,” explains our server, Camila. “We like how people of all different cultures come to our restaurant to learn about our cuisine.”
The staff at El Gaucho Inca work as a team to provide an unmatched dining experience, powered by the passion of the owners, Chef Mariano Maldonado and businesswoman Rocio Navarrete. The incredible husband-and-wife duo represent the blend of the Gaucho and Inca cultures which inspired the restaurant.
Chef Maldonado, the “gaucho,” was born and raised in Argentina, where he learned the art of cooking from his parents, aunts and grandmothers, who spent hours in the kitchen preparing hearty feasts for their large family gatherings. In addition to Argentinian cuisine, Maldonado was exposed to Italian cooking due to his father’s Italian roots. This explains the delicious homemade pastas on El Gaucho Inca’s menu, including classics like Noquis de Papa (potato gnocchi) and Tallarines with Meat Balls (spaghetti and meatballs).
While Maldonado was developing his culinary skills, Navarrete became an entrepreneur skilled in marketing and customer service, and dreaming big ideas into existence. The pair met in Naples in 2002, fell in love and soon began dreaming together. For several years, Maldonado had imagined putting his
culinary talent to the test by opening his own restaurant, and with the help of Navarrete’s business skills, this dream was finally within reach.
Originally from Peru, Navarrete is the Inca of the duo, providing colorful tapestries, llama-themed decorations, and most of all, fresh ideas for the mouthwatering Peruvian recipes served at the restaurant. As a result of her Peruvian heritage, Navarrete is well versed in the world of ceviche. El Gaucho Inca offers a wide variety of ceviche, flavored with Peruvian spices and peppers.
“Peruvian ceviche is very different from other ceviche because it is very fresh. You eat it right away,” says Navarrete.
With an intriguing concept featuring a variety of Peruvian, Argentinian and Italian dishes, Maldonado and Navarrete originally opened El Gaucho Inca to the Southwest Florida community in April 2011 with a Fort Myers location on Colonial Boulevard. By working with suppliers of Argentinian and Peruvian products, the couple has been able to provide a truly authentic experience and tantalize the tastebuds of their guests.
Through the years, Maldonado and Navarrete have experimented with other restaurant concepts as well; the duo launched a Mexican-Peruvian restaurant called Tacos y Ceviches in 2019. Flash forward to today, and the couple is managing their third restaurant, the second location of the award-winning El Gaucho Inca. After experiencing this South American-style haven, guests will be shocked to learn the restaurant has only been open since April 2021.
Although some were surprised by Maldonado and Navarrete’s decision to open El Gaucho Inca during such a difficult season for the restaurant industry, the couple did not back down from the challenge. Instead, they embraced the slow season because it allowed them the opportunity to train employees and provide the best service possible. With a relaxing atmosphere, friendly staff and food that is unbelievably savory, the strategy is clearly paying off.
Navarrete credits this smooth sailing to the hard work and culinary genius of her husband.
“Dining is an experience. My husband likes when people enjoy the food. He is very concerned with it,” she says.
Craving a steak? El Gaucho Inca has an Argentinian Grill section on its menu dedicated to meat lovers. For seafood enthusiasts, try one of the menu items listed under Peruvian Delicacies. Want a bowl of creamy pasta? They offer that, too!
El Gaucho Inca offers an array of uniquely scrumptious dishes, walls dedicated to showcasing the unique cultures of Peru and Argentina, and a welcoming atmosphere that’s sure to bring enjoyment.
Leche de Tigre: This flavorful ceviche is sure to awaken your tastebuds! Served in a cocktail glass, the ceviche is comprised of diced fish marinated with fresh lime juice and onion. To complement the flavors, the glass is garnished with cilantro, carrot and Peruvian corn. The ceviche also comes with a delicious side of fried calamari.
Tiraditos: Whether you are a ceviche lover or a newbie, ordering the Tiradito platter is the perfect way to sample a variety of Peruvian ceviche. The assortment features sliced White fish cut sashimi style and flavored with Jalapeño and two Peruvian peppers – Rocoto and Aji Amarillo. The spectacular dish is served with cancha (fried corn), choclo (steamed corn) and slices of sweet potato.
Burrata Frutale: For diners seeking a balanced yet savory entrée, try Navarrete’s favorite dish, the Burrata Frutale. The plate features a delightful slab of grilled salmon drizzled with Dijon mustard and paired with a fresh arugula salad topped with cherry tomatoes and burrata cheese. Carefully placed between this pairing are walnuts, fresh pineapple slices, pineapple marmalade and balsamic vinegar.
Fettuccini Verde Con Entrana: This fun dish offers a blend of Peruvian and Argentinian cuisine. Fettuccini Verde (pesto pasta) is a simple but satisfying Peruvian staple. The creamy pasta comes served with a side of sliced potatoes coated in a mild-spicy Huancaina sauce. These flavors perfectly compliment the Argentinian specialty, a tender, outside skirt steak plated with a cup of savory chimichurri sauce.
Pescado a lo Macho: This seafood dish is both eye-catching and tasty. The vibrant Macho sauce is made with a Peruvian pepper called Aji Panca. Underneath the generous serving of sauce lies a delicious fillet of tender, grilled fish (choice of snapper, salmon or white fish) topped with shrimp, calamari and mussels. The entrée comes with a bowl of white rice to complete the meal.
Trio Dessert Platter: El Gaucho Inca has a variety of heavenly desserts – we were lucky to sample three with the trio platter! On the left, there is a crepe dessert called Panqueques con Dulce de Leche. The rich caramel filling pairs well with the fluffy crepe topped with a sprinkle of powder sugar. Then there’s the Mango Guava Cheesecake. This unique dessert is a delightful surprise! While it includes elements of a traditional cheesecake, it contains mango guava filling, passionfruit syrup, and is garnished with sliced almonds. Third in the trio is a classic flan prepared Argentinian-style with a sweet caramel coating on top.
El Gaucho Inca
22909 Lyden Drive