Danielle Martini-Rios of Blue Corn Cafe

Danielle Martini-Rios and her husband Antonio Rios throw the kind of dinner party you want to be invited to. In one evening, this pair will whip up as many as 150 empanadas, and they’ll invite all of their friends to sample the fare. It’s no wonder they have thrived through twenty years of the restaurant business and nearly twenty years of marriage. Danielle and Antonio love food and all the accompanying festivity. These days, they love making their restaurant a family affair with sons Matteo and Sebastian, both of whom help out in the restaurant.

Danielle split her childhood between Italy and New Jersey and Antonio grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he attended culinary school. Though Danielle started out pre-med, she was deeply influenced by her hard-working immigrant father, who traveled every day from New Jersey to Manhattan to run his own small business. With Antonio’s culinary passion and Danielle’s entrepreneurial spirit, they opened Blue Corn Café in June of 1997. Danielle must have had as much confidence in the relationship as she did in their business endeavor, because she told Antonio that if they could survive a full year of running a restaurant, she’d marry him. They wed in May of 1998. As it turns out, the restaurant business is a good litmus test for marriage, and Danielle and Antonio both have the work ethic and the energy to make what they do a joy instead of a chore.

Authentic may be an overused word in the restaurant industry, but there’s really no better way to describe the Blue Corn menu. They make all of their corn tortillas, salsas, and sauces (including the enchilada sauce) in-house. Their mission has always been to create quality Latin food with locally sourced ingredients. In fact, Blue Corn has been a pioneer in Durham’s farm-to-table movement, locally sourcing their pork and sweet potatoes as early as 1997. In the beginning, it was tough to source their entire menu locally. But the Blue Corn menu has evolved with the North Carolina food and farm scene. Today, Blue Corn demonstrates a tremendous commitment to the local, sustainable food culture. All their tap beers are local (not an option in 1997!), and their shrimp is domestic and chemical-free. Their feta and goat cheese come from Hillsborough Cheese Company, their produce from local organic food distributors such as First Hand Foods, Ward’s Produce, and Eastern Carolina Organics. They still stop at local farm stands to get the seasonal produce that influences their menu (Funny Girl Farm is a favorite!). The result of all this local foraging is amazing specials like octopus tacos or North Carolina watermelon-infused lemonade. Blue Corn has found other ways to commit to sustainability, as well. They donate their deep fryer oil for bio diesel and send 900 – 1000 pounds of compost per month to local farms!

In the same way that Blue Corn has a symbiotic relationship with its food suppliers, they also have a deep partnership with the Ninth Street community. As Danielle puts it, the Ninth Street businesses “rely on each other.” The whole vibe of Blue Corn Cafe – one that puts diners at ease and says, “Come on in and eat with family!” – is a product of the Ninth Street energy, which is open, welcoming, and all about community. 

In the twenty years since Blue Corn opened its doors, Danielle and Antonio have seen quite a bit of change. They’ve doubled the number of people they employ. They have expanded, adding a bar in the next-door space that used to be Books on Ninth. And the menu evolves regularly. But Danielle and Antonio’s love for their work is more like one of their menu’s staples – the black bean and sweet potato stew, for example, or the Roma tomato and eggplant quesadilla. Some things are just too good to change. 

Here’s what Danielle, Antonio, and the boys are up to when they’re not busy at Blue Corn:

Music: Antonio and Danielle love Pink Floyd, The Doobie Brothers, and Steve Miller Band. The family has also been known to rock out to a little Guns n’ Roses.

Down Time: The Martini-Rios’ love to garden and take long bike rides on the American Tobacco Trail. They also like to chill at home – the boys especially love pizza and movie night.

Travel: This family always makes time to travel. They still have family in Italy and Mexico, and Matteo and Danielle are going to Ireland together this month.