THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Island devotees hew to heritage with stews, fado, and social bonds

By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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Just when it seemed that our table - loaded with squid rings, cod fish cakes, smelts, and Dão wine - couldn’t fit another plate, Ines De Costa delivered a pork loin marinated in fresh squeezed oranges, wine, paprika, and fresh garlic. “What I send to the table is what you’re going to eat,’’ said the 76-year-old chef of St. John’s Athletic Club as she awaited our reactions to the food. Our compliments came in a chorus as we tasted our first forkfuls: “This is the real thing.’’

“It’s so tender you can breathe on it and it pulls apart.’’

“It’s a grandmother recipe, like vovó used to make.’’

“Vovó,’’ the Portuguese familiar for “grandmother,’’ is a word that comes up often in Fall River, where immigrants play more than a usual role. In the last century thousands of Portuguese-Americans came here from the Azores islands belonging to Portugal. They sought better lives by working in local mills, and were fortified by religion and family, especially their grandparents. Vovó was the keeper of the culture, especially food.

In the Columbia Street neighborhood, the rich sounds of Portuguese fill the air. Here, amid church spires and tidy three-deckers, the Azorean restaurants, bakeries, markets, and social clubs make a worthwhile detour from the highway. The possibilities, which continue in the city’s North End, South End, and other neighborhoods, only deepened as my fiance, Ron Machado, and his friend Joe Brum, De Costa’s nephew, showed me their old haunts.

“This is wonderful. I haven’t had it like this since my grandmother made it,’’ Ron said, dipping a spoon into an order of fava beans at O’Gils. A newspaper clipping in the restaurant features O’Gil Fagundo, the first chef in Fall River to serve bife à Portuguêsa (Portuguese steak), prepared with two eggs and a meat juice gravy. He called it Bife O’Gil. Today, Victor Fagundo carries on his father’s tradition, peeling and hand-cutting fresh potatoes for the fries we ordered with our marinated pork sandwich. A half-portion fed two of us. “The large is almost a whole stick of bread,’’ said waitress Debbie Shartles.

The Clipper’s owner, Luis Clemente, is another who keeps faith with Azorean ways. Twice a week he has wreck fish and smelts, which are native to the Azores, flown in for his clientele. During our lunch, he shared his recipe for “feijao guizado,’’ a bean stew: “Olive oil, chopped onions, cabbage, red wine, beer, and pork, flavored with chouriço in a tomato base.’’ The ingredients don’t begin to describe how delicious it was. When Clemente came to the United States in 1965 from St. Michael, the archipelago’s most populous island, he opened his first restaurant, making $45 a day. Today, though his son Derek Raposo has joined the business, Clemente still rises at 4:30 a.m. to make his own sweet bread and cheese.

Cheese is also made fresh at Sagres, owned by the DaSilva family. “This food makes me feel taken care of,’’ our friend Cathy Fabrizi said as we tried the “queijo fresco,’’ a creamy cow’s milk round dashed with crushed red pepper paste, as common as olive oil in Azorean homes. Like the Clipper, Sagres offers a rolling list of traditional specials, musical as well as edible. Live fado music is performed on Saturdays. Frank Sousa, the director of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth’s Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, goes out of his way to get here for Tuesday and Thursday’s grilled octopus. “Arrive early - it’s sold out by 3 p.m.,’’ he advised.

“Azorean food is very distinctive, not only from mainland Portugal but also from island to island,’’ Sousa’s colleague Gloria de Sá explained. For instance, Alcindo Reis, the owner of Caldeiras Restaurant, offers a beef stew flavored with bay leaf, black pepper, and bacon that’s unique to his island of Terceira.

Fernando Santo, co-owner of T.A. Restaurant, is from Furnas, the geyser lakes region of St. Michael, where cauldrons of chouriço and blood sausage, chicken, beef, carrots, onions, and potatoes are lowered into holes and cooked in the ground. Santo offers this traditional stew (minus the volcano), called “cozido das Furnas,’’ for Sunday lunch. It’s made in small batches, so reserve ahead.

Ron had told some of our friends about our Fall River provisioners. They texted us from Chaves Market, whose fluorescent-lighted aisles at first look like any other market’s. Then you discover the rounds of Queijo São Jorge and São Miguel cheeses and the freezers stocked with goat meat and blue sticklebacks (like sardines but with fewer bones). The foods and prices here keep Azorean dishes staples in local kitchens.

Another text came from Europa Pastries and Coffee Shop, where the gossip flies in Portuguese, and egg- and sugar-rich “arroz doce,’’ or rice pudding; flans; and custard tarts tempt the morning espresso-clutch. It’s a longer way from here to Starbucks than it is to the Middle Ages, when sugar was a luxury and the daughters of Portuguese nobles, who were confined to convents, bided their time inventing desserts.

Every neighborhood supports its own small markets. Homemade sausages are as close as Nobrega’s on Columbia Street, or you can visit a small factory of them at Furtado’s on Underwood. Our friend Simon Newby taste-tested our bakery buys. “The best,’’ he said of a corn bread from Reis Bakery where John Diogo still bakes without quick-rising flour. De Sa shops at Cunha’s Bakery, whose brick oven produced our favorite Azorean bread. Carreiros Barcelos Bakery had one loaf left when we arrived - umber-crusted, chewy, and satisfying. “What do you call it,’’ I asked. “Grandmother bread,’’ said the cashier.

Newby, who works at Fall River’s Troy City Woodwork, sent us to one of his favorites, an anomaly in our nonstop Azorean diet.

“What can you tell us about these?’’ I asked Jenna Scottson who works at Hartley’s Original Pork Pies. “That they’re really good,’’ Scottson said as we tasted the ground pork-filled pastry shells dating to when weavers and carders from Lancashire migrated to the mills here.

The Portuguese social clubs are culturally integrated, too. “We’re like a League of Nations,’’ Richard Furtado, Liberal Club president, said while describing how the group formed to promote soccer and marching bands.

Today, many clubs are known for their kitchens, which are open to the public, and for their philanthropy. The St. John’s soup kitchen run by De Costa is only one example.

“In the Azores a lot of people were poor. You can’t even imagine,’’ De Costa said. Perhaps that’s why the 20th century immigrants are unstinting with their food. “It comes from faith. It comes from the heart,’’ she said.

The community’s bread ovens were baking overtime for the Feast of the Holy Ghost, celebrating the miracle of a Portuguese queen’s largesse. In Fall River, the three-day event held in summer draws as many as 250,000 transplanted Azoreans from around the world. “You’ve got to see it,’’ Sousa said.

So we bought two “malasadas,’’ sugar-dusted fried dough, and squeezed in among the sidewalk crowd. Brotherhoods, dignitaries, and bands marched from Ponta Delgada Boulevard to Kennedy Park under the spire of St. Anne’s church. The bishop of Faro blessed the “pensãos,’’ the bundles of meat, bread, and wine for the needy, while women descended the church steps in crowns and flowing robes.

Then, the moment I was looking forward to - a procession of all things Azorean, from dances and songs to goats, bulls, and cows - was canceled due to a torrential rain. But it didn’t matter. In Fall River, the feast goes on rain or shine.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Where to eat

Caldeiras

990 Pleasant St.

508-673-0026

Dinner $10.99-$21.99. Fixed price dinner for two $21.99, includes a bottle of wine.

The Clipper

459 S. Main St.

508-679-4700

Dinner $11-$19, specials $7-$14.

O’Gils

915 County St.

508-673-7250

Dinner $7-$19.50.

Sagres

177 Columbia St.

508-675-7018

osagres.wordpress.com

Dinner $10-$19.

St. John’s Athletic Club

1365 Rodman St.

508-672-6845

stjohnsac.com

Dinner $8.95-$14.05.

T.A. Restaurant

408 S. Main St.

508-673-5890

Dinner $15-$30.

Where to shop

Chaves Market and Gift Shop

49 Columbia St

508-679-4410

Nobrega’s Superette

235 Columbia St.

508-678-8652

Europa Pastries and Coffee Shop

61 Columbia St

508-678-5562

Cunha’s Bakery

212 Mulberry St.

508-674-7795

Hartley’s Original Pork Pies

1729 S. Main St.

508-676-8605

Reis Bakery and Market

208 Snell St.

508-678-3709