Years ago, I went to the movies with a friend. We saw Mystic Pizza, starring a then-unknown Juila Roberts, Lili Taylor, Annabeth Gish and Vincent D'Onofrio. If you haven't seen the film, it's basically a coming-of-age story about three sisters from a Portuguese family growing up in Mystic CT, working in the family pizza business. So, ninety minutes come and go and at the final scene —the big wedding— comes this guy singing the traditional Azorean folk song Sapateia that I knew from my very earlier childhood. And I said to myself, "Hey, I know that guy! "
Growing up in Fall River, I was always aware of Portuguese music artists. As a kid, I liked the music. I liked it a lot. To me it was no different than the contemporary music I heard on the radio or on MTV. There were local stars, too, that would play live at the huge church feasts, local restaurants and clubs, at weddings — and some even had videos playing on the local Portuguese cable station. Dinis Paiva is one of many artists I remember from that time. He sang Fado and other traditional Portuguese music. He also told stories and jokes - one of the first comedians I ever knew of - though the Portuguese was too advanced for me, a mostly English-speaking American kid. I think back to that time, now as an adult, and I can appreciate the important contribution of artists like Dinis Paiva who helped unify and strengthen the spirit of the Portuguese communities in southern New England.
In Portugal, Fado music grew out of the Fado houses in the mid-twentieth century. Fado houses are essentially bars and/or restaurants with live Fado music. It is interesting to note that Mr. Paiva's popularity and success was born from his time as a Fado singer in the seventies and eighties at a local Portuguese restaurant — Sagres in Fall River. Years later, he would open his own Fado house/restaurant in East Providence, Estrela do Mar, which became an important part of this community's identity. Today, Mr. Paiva is the proprietor of O Dinis (as in Chez Denis) in East Providence.1
Like my experience with the film Mystic Pizza, I was taken by surprise to learn from a friend about this restaurant. It's seconds off the highway, but the sign is tough to read and I never really noticed the quaint little building. When I walked in and saw all the photographs on the wall, I said "Hey, I know that guy!"
So, we came in for lunch. It's a small place, but it's not cramped at all and I felt really comfortable. The staff is friendly, helpful and they had a good sense of time - important when you're on your lunch break! There are tons of pictures on the wall and the interior is decorated with nostalgic Portuguese objects like ceramics, a copper cataplana vessel and other such things. It's obvious that at night and probably on the weekends, this place livens up as so many of the pictures feature Mr. Paiva and friends providing entertainment to the guests. Looks like a fun time.
CamarÃo Alhinho and polvo (octopus)
So, we're in for a simple, quick and good lunch. We had the octopus and the shrimp alhinho. They have good bread here - so important. It's not unique or special bread - but it is fresh! And there were some toasted bread slices that were yummy, too. The octopus is baked in a lot of broth with large potatoes. The result is closer to a stew than a roast. I grew up with octopus and it's one of my favorites. When I took one piece of the meat from the serving pot and placed it onto my plate, the almost two-foot long tentacle curled up in front of us. It was a little bit of a surprise for my lunch companion who was not used to seeing such a sight, but for me it was awesome. Normally, you get octopus cut into bit-sized pieces, but I prefer it this way because more of the meat keeps it's natural flavor and it not overpowered by the broth. Most of octopus available in the United States is imported from Asia, but this piece tasted so fresh, you'd swear it was just caught in the local Atlantic waters. Really good, super tender with authentic, traditional flavors. The shrimp alhinho looked good, too, with what seems to be becoming a trademark of Portuguese food to the non-Portuguese... tons of garlic and lots of bread-dunking sauce. The only thing is that it would be much better accompanied by hand-cut french fried potatoes.
O Dinis is a pleasant find. A comfortable, clean spot that is easy-to-get-to, really affordable, with tasty food. I'll be coming back, hopefully for a meal and a tune.
Local Providence news station feature on O Dinis and its Carne de Porco à Alentejana.
Mystic Pizza trailer (1988)
[Listen to Mr. Paiva sing the traditional Azorean song "Sapateia" at the end of the trailer]
Amália Rodrigues sings in a fado house.
A scene from the French film "Les Amants du Tage".
579 Warren Avenue
East Providence RI 02914-2816