I don’t know about you, but while I enjoy international travel when I’ve been out of the country for a length of time, I have found myself missing the tastes of home. So imagine moving to the United States from Portugal and not having a single local restaurant celebrate the flavors you grew up with!
I’ll be honest. I’ve never been to Portugal or, to my knowledge, tried Portuegues food, so when Tito and Liana Vitorino, the husband and wife owners of Amore Restaurant in downtown Sarasota, announced the introduction of Portuguese food to their menu, we knew we needed to learn a thing or two about the flavors from Portugal before we could write about it. Lucky for us, Tito was more than enthusiastic to share his knowledge about the flavors of home and offered several tastings for us to try while explaining the nuances of each dish. Call it educational or call it delicious . . . I’m in!
Growing up in Tarouca, Portugal, located at the edge of the port wine district of Douro, Tito and Liana were raised on a historic culinary diet rich in history. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese explorers brought back spices from China, Angola, Mozambique, and Brazil to compliment a cuisine immersed in the wonders of the sea. Portugal, located along the Atlantic coast of Spain and less than an hour’s flight from Morocco, could have easily blended Spanish or Morrocan flavors into their cuisine, but oddly enough, the country that has the greatest influence on Portuguese cuisine is . . . drumroll, please . . . Norway!
Yep. Norway. Specifically, Norweigan salted cod. Tito explained that with about 11 million people (similar to the state of Florida) Portugal consumes more Norwegian salted cod than the rest of the entire planet!!!! But what really intrigued me was learning that Portuguese cuisine doesn’t feature fresh cod. ONLY Norwegian salted cod. I’m guessing this goes back to their historic explorer days, but we knew we had to learn more.
While sharing an appetizer of Salted Cod Fritters, the only Portuguese appetizer on Amore’s menu, Tito explained why salted cod is nothing in flavor like the inexpensive fresh cod typically used to make Fish and Chips. But before I go into that interesting lesson, let me expound on how much I enjoyed the Salted Cod Fritters, made with potatoes, onion, parsley, and garlic, lightly fried to a golden, crispy crust and served with a side of garlic aioli. (There’s also a side of light Italian marinara, which fans of Amore’s Italian offerings have requested be included – but I preferred the garlic aioli!) In Portugal, Salted Cod Fritters are often served at lunch with a nice salad. In fact, you’d find them offered at pretty much 90% of the restaurant menus in Portugal, but since Amore isn’t open for lunch, Tito and Liana decided to offer the popular dish as an appetizer. Good move!
Tito explained that in Portugal, salted cod is admired much the same way a well-aged steak or vintage red wine is lauded in the U.S. Fresh cod is harvested and covered in sea salt for 3 to 6 months, allowing it to dry out and lose that ‘fishy’ taste some associate with fresh cod. Then, when delivered to the restaurant, the salted cod is rehydrated and soaked for 3-4 days, changing the water twice a day until the water is clear and no longer tastes of salt. (Mart called this “unbrining”) Each cod loin is about 3 inches thick and the end product is moist and flavorful, needing only a few ingredients to make for a delicious dish.
The single most popular cod dish in Portugal is one that pretty much every young boy or girl grows up learning to cook. Salted Cod Bacalhau is so popular there is a saying in Portugal that these are 365 ways to make Bacalhau – one for every day of the year. A typical Portuguese restaurant may have 10 different preparations of Bacalhau on their menu, but Amore only shows two, one version based on a recipe out of the city of Porto, and the one we tried, Salted Cod Fish Bacalhau à Brás, which heralds from Basta Alto, Lisbon.
To make Bacalhau à Brás, salted cod is shredded and lightly fried in extra virgin olive oil with onions, crispy fried potatoes (similar to matchstick potato snacks,) and fresh black olives. This is then bound together with scrambled eggs creating a flavorful dish that Mart said he’d enjoy even for breakfast. With only five ingredients, this dish is simple in design, delicate in taste and unlike any dish I’ve ever had before. While Mart and I intended to share, I had to put on the gastro brakes because I really would have preferred keeping this dish to myself. I loved the fresh olives against the cod and egg, and the crunch from the potato was a delight. Like the Salted Cod Fritters, the Bacalhau à Brás is the perfect introduction to the flavors of salted cod as it is enjoyed in Portugal.
Our second, also shared dish, was Salted Cod à Lagareiro, one of the most renowned and frequently made recipes of salted, cured cod in Portugal. This classic goes by many names: Bacalhau à Lagareiro, Bacalhau no Forno, or Bacalhau Assado com Batatas a Murro. No matter the name, this is the single preparation for salted cod that Tito would eat the rest of his life if he was told he could only pick one way to prepare cod. Originating from the Bairro Alto region of Portugal, Salted Cod à Lagareiro translates to Salted Cod cooked in olive oil, and Amore cooks their version as a thick fillet, including the pin bones, baked in extra-virgin olive oil with garlic, onions and roasted potatoes that are so tender the entire dish just melts in your mouth.
This is a stellar dish and a beautiful presentation. The potatoes are cooked first, then smashed before adding them to the olive oil, which is seasoned with fresh garlic. Cooked over an open flame, the skin of the salted cod is crispy and full of garlic flavor, while the tender meat of the cod is only lightly flavored by garlic. I especially loved the paring of the caramelized onions against the cod and a forkful of the garlicy potatoes. This is a very satisfying dish that checks all the boxes for flavor, presentation, the balance of protein to vegetables, with bites that are both savory and sweet. If this is what Portuguese flavor is all about, my next vacation has got to be to Portugal!
While visiting with Tito, I had to ask if Amore was planning to dial back their popular Italian menu in order to feature more Portuguese dishes, and how he and Liana chose which dishes to feature on their menu. Right now there are more Italian dishes on the menu, but over time, Amore’s menu will feature 50% Italian, and 50% Portuguese offerings. “We have so many regular guests who love our pasta and pizza that we wouldn’t dare let them down,” Tito explained. “We’re even adding a custom brick pizza oven to our outside dining room, but based on those same regular guest’s appreciation of our Portuguese menu items, we’re going to keep adding to our offerings from Portugal.”
Tito shared how watching guest’s plates after they’ve finished their meal helped him fine-tune Amore’s menu. “If I see a guest has completely ‘licked their plate clean’, then I know that the dish was enjoyed and will continue to be a success. If guests aren’t consistently polishing off a dish or asking for to-go containers, then that dish, or that recipe, won’t make it on our menu. At the end of the meal, we want our guests to ask for the recipe, and they do!”
After a few dishes featuring salted cod, Mart and I moved on to another classic from Portugal, the Pork Loin com Farinheira Sausage. This was, to me, the most unique flavor we had that evening. A 10 oz pork loin is sauteed with Alheira sauce, then topped with grilled farinheira sausage and served with rice and fresh vegetables. It struck me as odd to have such a thick and luscious slice of pork topped with sausage, but then I tasted the two together . . . Awesome! Farinheira is not a meaty sausage. It’s made from wheat flour, pork fat, and seasoning and tastes more tangy and sweet than expected. The Alheira sauce spooned over the top is also made from sausage, a chicken sausage that Portuguese Jews used to make back in 1497 as a way to masquerade as Christians while still avoiding pork. (Click the link provided . . . it’s pretty fascinating!)
The Pork Loin con Farinheira offers a wonderful, smoky flavor that cannot be compared to anything I’ve ever tasted. The Alheira sauce cannot be replicated without the recipe as written by Tito. “I really wanted guests to enjoy pork the way we do in Portugal,” he said. “We don’t pair pork with apples or sweet flavors. In my mind, pork is best when prepared savory, tender and juicy.” And that’s pretty much what the Pork Loin con Farinheira delivers. One guest went so far as to compliment Amore’s dish by saying “Amore is teaching Sarasota how to eat pork.” Try it, and let me know if you agree!
lesson dish was the one I was initially most excited to try. I had seen the Cataplana cookware in high-end stores before and had no idea what one would do with it. Fortunately, Tito was happy to explain.
Cataplana is actually the name of the clamshell type cookware that is historic to Portugal. Heralding from the country’s Algarve region, cataplana cookware is made to withstand direct contact with an open flame and is only opened once it arrives at your table. The secret to a delicious cataplana recipe is the broth, and Amore’s sauce is one of the more complex items on their menu, consisting of 20 different ingredients. The sauce itself is so delicious that guests often ask to take some home with them! One guest even asked Tito if they could order a quart of their sauce so they take it home, add fresh shrimp and serve it at a dinner party!
Amore offers 3 different cataplana dishes on their menu, and we were fortunate to share the Seafood Cataplana de Marisco, which, like all the cataplana dishes on Amore’s menu is available in single portion size or order for two. Featuring that amazing slightly Briney seafood broth, with lobster tail, clams, mussels, scallops and calamari, and a few diced potatoes, onions and herbs are thrown in for good measure. This dish is exquisite from start to finish, from presentation to flavor to “can I get some of that broth to take home!” Amore’s staff even removes the lobster shell from the tail once they open the cataplana for you. One hint: Sit back when they open the cataplana . . . unless you want to steam facial!
Looking back over the number of dishes we were so grateful to try, compliments of Amore, I can’t think of one that I wouldn’t want to order again! How could I NOT have the Salted Cod Fritters or the Pork Loin con Farinheira? In fact, how could I skip over any of the dishes we tried? Everything was so delicious and the history behind the recipes, (and the cookware) was fascinating. While I’m still a novice as it comes to Portuguese cooking (I’ve only tried one of the 365 recipes for bacalhau, for goodness sake!) I am confident in saying this is one of the more intriguing cuisines I’ve enjoyed in some time.
Who knew salted cod could be so . . . well, unsalty! Portugal . . . I’m blown away!