What are a TV anchor, a chef, a publicist, and a restaurant critic doing together at a table in New Bedford?
How did this gathering come to pass? As such things tend to — through a few chance conversations between people who love food. Earlier this year, I was talking with hospitality publicist Nicole Russo about matters unrelated, while putting together a story about what local figures eat when they want to treat themselves. Russo mentioned that Jackie Bruno, a former anchor and reporter (she has since stepped away to launch a marketing agency), is obsessed with Cape Cod Cafe pepperoni pizza. OK, amazing. I called Bruno immediately. She told me about how her grandmother would bribe her to go to church in Brockton by promising a trip to the landmark pizzeria afterward. (The cute boy in youth group didn’t hurt, either.)
She also told me about her childhood in Freetown, where she grew up in a Portuguese and Italian family, and about some of her favorite restaurants in the South Coast area. “I’m still mourning the loss — it’s been, like, decades — of China Royal in Fall River, where I ate my first grain of rice as my first solid food,” she said. But mainly, it was the Portuguese cuisine concentrated in the communities of Fall River and New Bedford that had her heart. She began ticking off the places she loves, then dropped that she’d been promising for ages to take chef Jason Santos on a food crawl through some of them.
My ears perked. I’m always looking for a guide with the inside scoop. Let’s make this thing happen.
And so, on a warm, sunny day, our motley crew gathers on the patio at Tia Maria’s European Cafe. It’s located in a cute goldenrod house with white trim, in the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, an area of charm and cobblestone streets. It does, in fact, feel European. It’s open for breakfast and lunch, and dinner on the weekends, with a savory menu of soups, sandwiches, and Portuguese classics: caldo verde, shrimp Mozambique, steak topped with eggs. But the day is young, and we have a lot of eating to do, so we’re starting with a snack: the egg custard tarts called pasteis de nata and toasted, buttered Portuguese rolls. Bruno is wearing a pretty flowered dress with ruffled sleeves, bubbling over with excitement. Santos — behind local restaurants such as Buttermilk & Bourbon and Citrus & Salt and a frequent TV presence on shows like “Bar Rescue” and “Hell’s Kitchen” — sports a gray button-down and drops deadpan one-liners, his trademark blue hair shining in the sun. We need coffee, but Bruno has a different idea.
“It’s Sumol!” She passes around cans of the lightly carbonated juice drink, available in flavors like orange, pineapple, and passionfruit. It’s fruity and sweet and iconic in Portugal. Bruno drank a ton of it as a kid (but for adults it would be great as a mixer with alcohol).
Then she looks around furtively, before unzipping her backpack.
“Jackie, what’s that?” Santos is laughing already, eyeing the plastic bag she pulls out with pride.
It’s a loaf of Portuguese sweet bread from Lou’s Bakery in Fall River, of course. Bruno has tried them all, and Lou’s is the best, she says. The bakery opens at 6 a.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Today is Monday. Then comes the confession: She tried to convince them to open to open today, just for us. They were unmoved. So we can’t try their famed malassadas — Portuguese doughnuts — which need to be enjoyed fresh. But we can at least taste their sweet bread, which she picked up while she was there. Even a day old, she is convinced, it will still be the best version in town.
We taste it. It’s great — soft, sweet, with just the right density, made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, yeast, sugar, and salt. No preservatives, because you’ll eat the whole thing before it goes stale, or use the rare leftovers to make excellent French toast.
But it’s time to move on, before we spoil our appetites with smuggled-in sweet bread. Next stop: Goulart Square Bakery, a corner shop with decorated windows and a sign promising bread, pastry, and cakes. Like Lou’s, it’s been around for more than 40 years, turning out papo secos, Portuguese rolls; bolos de arroz, rice muffins; and other treats. By the time we arrive, the stock is already dwindling. “How are these?,” Santos asks, gesturing toward something in the case. The staffer on duty shrugs, refreshingly honest. We are a bit late in the day for fresh-baked goods.
The natas, however, look amazing, flaky and blistered and caramelized in spots. I love custard tarts, which Portuguese colonizers spread far and wide. We wander off with a bag in hand, to eat after lunch at Antonio’s Restaurant.
Bruno is a longtime customer, and owner Belinda Afonso spots her, greeting us warmly. Do we need to look at the menu? Probably not, although we do anyway for fun. We already know we are going to order pasteis de bacalhau, crisp, fried croquettes of salt cod and potato; ginormous stuffed quahogs, which taste like Thanksgiving stuffing flavored with chouriço (in these parts, you can get the pork sausage in just about anything); pork Alentejana, a pan of garlicky tenderloin, littlenecks, and fried potatoes; and a little light dish called steak Antonio’s style, grilled sirloin topped with ham, fried eggs, and a beefy sauce, beside rice and French fries. Friends, we are full. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying my favorite dish of the local Portuguese canon, shrimp Mozambique, a spicy, buttery concoction stained orange with saffron and a spice mix containing annatto and turmeric. The shrimp are nice but almost incidental; for me, this dish is all about the sauce. It would be such a good hangover cure, it almost makes me wish I had a hangover.
We can’t eat another bite, but we can shop. Bruno takes us to Portugalia Marketplace in Fall River, which she aptly refers to as “Eataly, but for Portugal.” It’s a vast, impressive collection of treasures, with a counter for cured meats and all of the sausages (chouriço hot and mild, linguiça, morcela), another for breads, a separate room showcasing many kinds of salt cod, and shelves that hold every kind of nut, olive, tinned fish, and wine one could want to buy. It’s not just a market but a showcase for Portuguese culinary tradition. Naturally, there’s a cafe.
Can we eat one more pastel de nata, drink one more coffee? Always.
Antonio’s Restaurant, 267 Coggeshall St., New Bedford, 508-990-3636, www.antoniosnewbedford.com. Goulart Square Bakery, 413 Rivet St., New Bedford, 508-996-4327, www.goulartsquarebakery.webs.com. Lou’s Bakery, 379 East Main St., Fall River, 508-672-5795. Portugalia Marketplace, 489 Bedford St., Fall River, 508-679-9307, www.portugaliamarketplace.com. Tia Maria’s European Cafe, 42 North Water St., New Bedford, 508-993-8900, www.tiamariaseuropeancafe.com.