Port Time: Pico Redefines Portuguese Cooking

Roast suckling pig with fried potatoes is not a sensible dish to eat at midnight. But four of us had gone to a Gypsy flamenco concert that had lasted until 11 o’clock, which is the normal dinner hour if you’re a Spaniard. Pico is a Portuguese restaurant, not Spanish, yet it was so packed when we arrived that we had to wait for a table. Couples were drinking cocktails in the lounge, and the dining room was full of boisterous men in their shirtsleeves who were clearly having a splendid time over a glass of port.

“You know what would be great with the pig?” said the manager. “A chilled sparkling red wine. I’ll bring a glass for you to taste.”

“Cold Duck!” exclaimed my husband.

It was not Cold Duck but Aliança bruto tinto, a fizzy, ruby-red wine from the Portuguese province of Bairrada that was as perfect a marriage with suckling pig as a glass of sauternes with foie gras, providing a foil to the richness of the meat. It’s the traditional drink served with this dish, which is to the restaurants of Bairrada what steak frites are to a French bistro. Suckling pig may be just a snack, served plain with a basket of bread, or a celebratory dinner for 12. But it’s a tricky dish that can be either simply awful (leathery skin, fatty, nasty, soft meat) or great. At Pico, it’s great. The pig is marinated with garlic, salt and parsley, and brushed with vinho verde (a light, fruity wine) and a citrus-honey glaze as it cooks in a rotisserie so the skin crisps without burning. The meat comes out luscious and creamy under sheets of crackling as thin as paper.

Pico opened just over a month ago in the old Bazzini nut warehouse, an imposing red-brick landmark building on the western edge of Tribeca. The restaurant is co-owned by chef John Villa, who was formerly at Judson Grill and the Boathouse, and Mark Rakauskas, who is general manager. The staff look and sound vaguely Portuguese, but they aren’t, apart from Maria Valim, the beautiful hostess (and wife of the manager), who was born on the island of Pico in the Azores.

Villa has reinterpreted Portuguese cuisine, making it lighter and more refined without depriving it of its character. And to go with Mr. Villa’s food, Pico has a remarkable wine list, with many unheralded vintages from Portugal at reasonable prices, plus a formidable selection of ports (how about a Quinta do Noval Nacional 1962 for $1,430?) and a selection of more than 150 French reserve wines.

The two dining rooms were designed by Mr. Villa’s wife, Regina Graves, a film-set decorator who has worked on Woody Allen movies. There is something Alice in Wonderland about the scale. Giant yellow banquettes have high, undulating backs that stretch a foot above your head when you sit down. Behind them loom enormous 40’s-style lamps with hand-painted shades perched on tall, wrought-iron stands. The large tables are set with blue chairs, with long, skinny backs and triangular seats decorated with blue and yellow tassels. The walls are the original bare brick, the vaulted ceilings hung with blown-glass chandeliers that cast a soft, warm glow, and the fado on the sound system is properly doleful. When we sat down, an appetizing smell of garlic wafted from the gleaming open kitchen.

Unless you’ve had it before, you will probably bypass the açorda (bread soup) on the menu. That would be a mistake. It is not a heavy mass of soggy bread, but a light, delicate concoction: a sublime, complex chicken broth seasoned with cilantro, floating with airy pillows of bread and a couple of soft poached quail eggs. Another famous Portuguese delicacy is bacalhau–salt cod–of which there is said to be a different preparation for every day of the year. Mr. Villa mixes it with mashed potatoes seasoned with spicy piri piri sauce and roasted garlic to make a crisp, airy fried cake served with a colorful salad of beets, radishes and blood oranges with cilantro, mint and parsley.

Mr. Villa also uses Portuguese charcuterie to add an authentic, earthy flavor to his dishes. Cockles, which can sometimes be rather rubbery and annoying to eat, were tender and sweet here, steamed in a vinho verde broth scented with bay leaf and mint, and infused with the smoky spiciness of small chunks of chouriço sausage. Chouriço also added another dimension to duck, which was roasted, taken off the bone, mixed with duck stock seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, and baked with rice and golden raisins in a terracotta casserole. Rabbit, marinated in herbs and olive oil, was wrapped and roasted in Portuguese smoked bacon so it was particularly juicy and moist. It arrived on a crunchy chickpea cake with spinach and a creamy mustard butter. Seared fillets of mullet were laid over a powerfully seasoned confit of baked eggplant, plum tomatoes and parsley, and seasoned with slow-cooked onions and presunto, a ham-like smoked prosciutto.

Where would a Portuguese restaurant be without sardines? Mr. Villa pan-fried them on one side and steeped them in hot olive oil with coriander, oregano, fennel, cumin seeds and port wine vinegar. Lots of lemon was added, but the sardines still seemed a bit bland. So did the tiny portion of grilled baby octopus, which was seasoned with lime and served with diced cucumber, red and yellow peppers, parsley, cilantro, a dash of verjus and lots of olive oil. But the grilled sargo (porgy) was stellar, flaky and firm, with a jaunty garnish of walnuts, parsley, green olives and roast fingerling potatoes. Pink, tender grilled rack of lamb, marinated in vinho verde, was paired with fennel cooked in vinegar and potatoes tossed in butter and cilantro.

To go with one of the many ports on the list, there is an assortment of seven to 10 Portuguese cheeses, including a peppercorn-crusted ribafria; san jorge, an aged cow’s milk from the Azores that was in the little puffs sent from the kitchen when we sat down; and serre da estrela, a sharp sheep’s milk cheese produced in Portugal since the 12th century.

Desserts included a lovely blood orange mousse served with orange cookies and a tangy Meyer lemon ice cream. Mango mousse, tucked inside a spiced macadamia tuile sandwich with coconut ice cream on top, came with a candied fruit that turned out to be a golden kiwi. It was a great combination. My favorite was the sonhos (“little dreams”), dark beignets sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and dunked into chocolate and raspberry sauces. Portuguese eat these for breakfast. A meal like this, which finished well after 1 a.m., might not seem to lead to the sweet dreams promised in the sonhos. But I rolled into bed at 2 and slept like a lamb ’til morning, when I woke up wishing there were sonhos for breakfast.


* *

349 Greenwich Street (at Harrison Street)


Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: 125 Portuguese wines and rare ports, plus a remarkable reserve list of 170 Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhône wines

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $24 to $34

Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to

2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Port Time: Pico Redefines Portuguese Cooking