The COVID-19 pandemic caused chef Damiana Lopez to lose her job when the restaurant where she worked shut down. She then teamed with her friend, Suleyka Martinez, to open a new place, Dania’s Kitchen, bringing their passion for Dominican and Puerto Rican cooking to downtown Harrisburg.
Lopez came from impoverished beginnings and recalls slaughtering chickens and cooking them in the backyard with extended family before stepping into the healthcare field.
“I was a nurse in Puerto Rico, then when I was pregnant with my first baby, his father went to jail and I thought, ‘I’m going to be alone for this,’” Lopez said.
With her 1-week-old, she found a job working in a bakery that allowed her to care for her child.
“I started cooking bread and made sandwiches first,” she said. “Then they wanted to make pastelitos and, after the cook left, she showed me how I had to make it.”
Lopez was only 19 years old and had never even cooked rice, she said.
As her talents grew, she moved to Florida and Massachusetts, working different restaurant jobs before returning to Puerto Rico to work as a nurse again. However, her inclination for the food industry took hold.
“I like to be a nurse, but I love to be a cook,” she said.
Five years ago, Lopez moved to Harrisburg for its low rent and proximity to family.
“When I came here, I didn’t like it,” she said. “Everything looked depressed, but now it looks a lot better.”
As the city bettered itself, Lopez said that she also did, and, over time, learned to love her surroundings.
“I can say I’m a different person, maybe a business person,” she said.
Learning to live more sustainably, Lopez focused on her cooking and worked at various restaurants before coming to Cidra’s Cabana on Allison Hill as head chef.
Martinez said that, when the pandemic forced that restaurant to close, Lopez kept doing what she loved.
“She would make these fancy dinners for us and would make cooking videos on Facebook showing everyone, and we got a lot of feedback saying, ‘Hey, can I get a plate?’ and ‘You should sell that,’” said Martinez.
With her strong reputation already established, Lopez began taking orders for catering.
“Honestly, she gave me a lot of pushback—she didn’t want to do it,” Martinez said. “When she started doing it, it went way better than we expected.”
The pair discovered their current downtown location when they came to buy a refrigerator. They saw a “for lease” sign and a chance to open their own place in the former home of 2nd Street Shawarma, which had moved down the block.
“We couldn’t keep up with the orders from home,” Martinez said. “The demand called for it.”
Dania’s Restaurant opened in August to a mix of neighborhood patrons and the area’s growing Latino population seeking a taste from their childhood memories. Some customers are willing to drive more than 45 minutes to find a meal, sometimes three to four times a week, Martinez said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Lopez is learning to specialize in made-to-order takeout.
“Normally, when you get Spanish food, you go, and you see all the food is already cooked,” said Martinez.
Lopez, though, prides herself on fresh food, made to fill the niche of the individual customer, from locally sourced ingredients.
Latin food is typically sautéed at low heat for an extended period as other ingredients are added like garlic, peppers, onions with a variety of spices, which works to trap in the flavor, she said.
Lopez’s favorite dish is the garlic shrimp due to its popularity, but, as the flavors filled her mind, she back-tracked to say that each recipe was her favorite.
From where she’s been to where she’s going, Martinez said she values Lopez’ strength and resiliency.
“It’s so brave of her to put out her menu, her flavor, and she’s putting it out for everyone to critique and taste — that’s big,” said Martinez. “I’m so proud of her.”
Dania’s Kitchen is located at 316 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-695-0006 or visit their Facebook page.
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