An emphasis on fresh fish and handmade pasta ties it all together.
Growing up in Lima, Peru, chef Rafael Lopez-Aliaga long drew inspiration for his dishes from the ocean, innovating new takes on sushi and ceviche based on whatever the local fishermen had caught that day.
Now on the island of Aruba, nearly 2,000 miles away from his hometown, he still approaches food with the same dedication to local culture and ingredients. Everyday the neighborhood fishermen call his restaurant to describe their catch, and by the time the doors open at 6 p.m., he has incorporated it into that night's featured dishes.
“To have that type of connection with [the fishermen] is fantastic,” Lopez-Aliaga told Travel + Leisure.
“I try to involve all of the culture from that country or from that location,” he said. “There’s a lot of similarities with Peru and Aruba because we are oceanfront.”
In his capacity as the head chef for the Ritz-Carlton resort in Aruba, he oversees four distinct restaurants, including a steakhouse, a sushi bar, and an Italian trattoria. All of the food exceeds anything one might expect from a beach resort, thanks in part to the culinary dedication of Lopez-Aliaga.
At the Divi Bar & Lounge, guests can enjoy cocktails featuring an extract from the island’s native cadushy cactus before snacking on sushi featuring freshly caught seafood. The lounge’s signature roll includes king crab, shrimp tempura, cucumber, tuna, avocado, yuzu aioli, eel sauce, and tobiko (a type of fish roe).
Lopez-Aliaga is a recent transplant to Aruba, and many of the items on the menu existed before his arrival, but he is determined to incorporate his own Peruvian influences to the menus of the restaurants. One of his first projects is to add a series of different ceviches to the lounge menu, including those in the style of Mexico, Peru, and Aruba.
That same emphasis on fresh and local translates to the approach at the property’s Italian restaurant, Solanio. The restaurant has styled itself as a classic trattoria, with an emphasis on antipasto and handmade pasta, while also including some of the fresh fish of the island.
Their signature lobster ravioli is made with large chunks of lobster meat folded inside freshly made pasta and drizzled with a grappa-sambuca tomato cream. It can only be described as something close to a religious experience.
“Our main focus is that everything needs to be fresh and handmade. You can see the difference between other types of pasta because it is fresh,” said Lopez-Aliaga.
The restaurant is also known for its fresh pasta trio, in which three of their best-loved dishes are prepared and served tableside.
Lopez-Aliaga’s maternal family is Italian, and he fondly recalls spending long weekend days around a big table preparing food with his entire family.
With a mother who ran a flower shop and an artist father, he was drawn into the creative elements of cooking from a young age.
“Since I was a kid, I knew that I wanted to be a chef,” Lopez-Aliaga told T+L. “Sunday lunch that starts with gnocchis and finishes maybe at 6 o’clock. It’s a long lunch and everybody is involved.”
That sense of care in preparation is what continues to draw people across the island to the Ritz-Carlton’s restaurant, and with Lopez-Aliaga at the helm, travelers can look forward to more Peruvian quinoa, ceviche, and Italian breakfast prepared in a pizza oven.