Wednesday, June 23, 2010


In traditionally Catholic countries like Portugal, saint days are important holidays for the local population and tradition, and can often be the best "festa" going. This is definitely the case with the Festa de Santo Antonio in Lisbon. What an experience!

But first, a little history. 
Saint Anthony was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões circa 1195, in Lisbon, Portugal, where he lived most of his life. When he later gained admission to the Franciscan order he took up the name Antonio (Anthony). He was venerated as Anthony of Padua or Anthony of Lisbon. Canonized in 1232 by Pope Gregory IX about a year after his death, St. Antonio was the most quickly-canonized saint in history.
His dedicated church is Sant'Antonio di Padova in northeastern Italy, which contains what is said to be his tongue -- an important relic, as he was distinguished as a great orator (still, seeing his tongue is pretty freaky, I must admit. And people line up for it).

Among many other things, St. Antonio is the patron saint of harvests, lower animals, pregnant women, and oppressed people. He's also the patron saint of mariners, lost articles, travelers and mail: 4 things interestingly, that seem inherently linked (especially "lost articles" and "mail" in Italy...). And lastly, St. Antonio is the saint of LOVE in Portugal and Brazil - especially new love, newlyweds, and lost loves who find each other again, as legend states that acted as conciliator to couples.

St. Antonio died 13 June, 1231, so June 13th is the Festa de Santo Antonio in Lisbon -- a municipal holiday.
Newlywed couples give thanks and singles pray for a match made in heaven (the previous day, June 12, is the Brazilian Valentine's Day).
The festa is celebrated with parades and, since the 1950's, marriages of a handful of "modest" young couples who receive the blessing of Saint Anthony in one large ceremony, the "Santo Casamenteiro" at the historical Sé Cathedral in the ancient Alfama neighborhood.

This also correlates with another tradition for couples and Lisboners looking for love, with the gift of Manjerico to that special someone. These little potted plants of newly sprouted Basil (for a newly sprouted love) are given as gifts throughout June, wrapped in red ribbon. Less traditionally, drunken Lisboetas wear flourescent green wigs with a red headband to signify this Manjerico, and hit each other with big red plastic hammers that squeak on impact -- something decidedly un-endearing, resembling dog toys.

Manjerico que te deram,
Amor que te querem dar…
Recebeste o manjerico. 
O amor fica a esperar.
Basil that was given to you,
(Is) Love that is wanted to be given to you….
You received this basil.
The love is waiting.

After a colorful parade down the city's main artery, the streets of Lisbon are full of people celebrating in every neighborhood -- but in particular, the Alfama and area around Sé Cathedral are the heart of the festa. Music is in the air. Every restaurant, bar, and storefront sets up stalls and grills for the traditional "poor food" of the festa: sardines and pork. When slapped on a bun, these sandwiches are called Sardinha no Pão and Entremeada no Pão. The popularity of Lisbon's large, meaty sardines during this time is a tribute to Santo Antonio’s legendary “sermon to the fish” in Padua, and also because it's high season for the healthy, omega-3-rich fish. The cut of pork traditionally used is called entremeada, and is considered the fattiest cut of ribs possible. All this great street food is washed down with cold beer, caipirinhas, sangria, and ginja (a local cherry-flavored liquor - delish). The only negative is the lack of bathroom access -- possibly worse than Mardi Gras in New Orleans -- otherwise, I highly recommend planning a trip to Lisbon around June 13th. They do their local saint proud.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Breakfast Club, Part 3

And so, with the debut of the first Breakfast Club brunch, we had a hit on our hands. The owners had never seen the restaurant so full in all the months it had been open for dinner. So what did they do? They hired me to be the executive chef of the Ristorante Pasquino in the evenings, in addition to our brunch -- requiring them to fire their current chef at the time, which they did summarily. 

Over the next few days, I spent entire afternoons cleaning out the entire kitchen, top-to-bottom, with the help of my loyal friend/front-of-house man, Martin. It was a frightening task to see all the crap that had accumulated in the few months since the restaurant's opening. The previous chef clearly didn't understand the finer points of Italian cuisine. He had stocked 20 kilo bags of basmati rice, for instance, "for risotto" -- pretty much an impossibility. Ingredients were frozen and of low quality, so we ended up tossing a lot of sub-par foodstuff. We scrubbed the place. We revamped the ordering system. And I developed a menu that would be interesting, offering something for Romans and foreigners, both culinary purists and those with daring palates. The owners said they knew from the first "family meal" (staff dinner) that they were in for something good. Martin became the head waiter and I brought in some of our brunch kitchen help to work during the week as well. Things were looking up.

In the meantime, we'd hit a stride with our brunch over the first few weeks. We had a successful "Brunch di Pasqua" on Easter Sunday, celebrating the Italian springtime and the custom of eating eggs at Easter. We had our regulars: some friends and family, some students from nearby international universities, many expats from various government organizations, television networks, and expat bars. 

And we had neighborhood locals as well, including well-known Trastevere resident Romina Powers. She and her family loved our American food so much that she was one of our first dinnertime clients as well.

We had some hiccups, of course. Sometimes, some of our staff members were out of town...or out of service (Sunday morning is a rough gig). Occasionally we had the whiney customer. Our timing wasn't always perfect, and there were waits. But there were smiling servers, and lots of Bloody Marys to go around. 
One morning, Patrick took our slab bacon to the alimentari to get it sliced, as usual -- only to find that the shop was closed per funerale: it seemed our sweet, lovely signore had sliced his last piece of bacon for us. And speaking of bacon, one Sunday, a client complained that his bacon was burned. The plate was swiftly returned to the kitchen, where I dumped the bacon and had my cook start on a new order. Appalled at the "utter waste of good, crunchy burnt bacon," 2 of our severs proceeded to eat said bacon. Out of the garbage ("what??? It was on top!"). No one could say we didn't watch our bottom line.

But unfortunately, the local authorities were watching us too. It's common practice in Italy for restaurant and bar owners to pay off the vigili (sort of a police/health department combo) to remain open without problems, fines, etc. Well, the Ristorante Pasquino owners refused to pay off the authorities asking for handouts (moral strength? fiscal parsimony?). And we'd had an inkling that other restaurateurs in the neighborhood were less than happy about our (foreigners') success. 
And so, one night during service, the vigili showed up at the restaurant, barged into the kitchen, and performed a sort of "raid" on the place. A few weeks later, they'd officially closed the restaurant down for some infraction of draconian fire codes. And that was it for the Breakfast Club and Ristorante Pasquino -- for a while, anyway.

To Be Continued...