Food Interviews

A Little Portugal in East Providence

Family service, traditional dishes and live music make the restaurant O Dinis a perfect dining getaway

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Home to a bustling Portuguese community, East Providence is a hub of family-style European flavor right here in New England. If you need proof, look no further than O Dinis. Chef and manager Natalia Paiva-Neves is the woman behind the welcoming atmosphere and menu that reminds Portuguese natives of home and transports culinary adventurers across the ocean.

Tell me why everyone, those who’ve been dining here for years and first-time visitors alike, loves O Dinis?

We are known for our down-to-earth, family-style dining. The restaurant’s name itself is probably a pretty good example of why we’ve been such a feature of the Portuguese dining scene here in East Providence for over two decades. O Dinis means “Dinis’ Place” in Portuguese; Dinis is my father’s name. He originally named his first restaurant in East Providence “Estrela Do Mar,” meaning “Star of the Sea,” but everyone just referred to it as Dinis’ place! He created such a warm and welcoming atmosphere with family dining at the center of the experience that his name became one with the restaurant. When he opened this location he gave the people what they wanted and simply called it “Dinis’ Place.”

The restaurant has unique decor with European charm. Most people speak Portuguese and greet each other with a kiss. It’s like stepping over the Portuguese border when you cross the threshold.

You’re known for serving truly authentic cuisine, rather than a pastiche of Portuguese food. How do you choose dishes to put on the menu? 

We try to come up with a menu that uses seasonal ingredients, especially when it comes to our fresh fish, which we get delivered four times a week. We get a lot of our fish locally from Boston, New Bedford and Narragansett,
as there are so many options for fresh fish from the boats coming into the harbors here. We are so fortunate to live in the Ocean State; we do our best to reflect that privilege on our menu by using as much local seafood and fish as we can.

With family being so central to Portuguese culture, how does family dining and enjoyment of food feed into your recipes?

My family is from the Azores, a cluster of islands off the Portuguese coast. Our cooking is highly influenced by our culture. Azorean food is all about rich, wholesome flavors in simple, honest recipes. We use a lot of meat and fish in spicy stews and sauces, but love to finish meals with sweet dairy-based desserts.

I was born in São Miguel and came to America when I was seven years old, but it was my father who came here first to open one of the first Portuguese restaurants in the area. My father also has a very successful music career as a singer. He often performs here in the restaurant, another example of how food and family are so entwined in our culture.

What would you recommend to someone who is new to a Portuguese restaurant?

One of the best-known and most loved dishes on any Portuguese menu is bacalhau, a dish made with dried and salted cod. Our version is grilled on the bone, which gives it a richer flavor and a much meatier texture. It’s then topped with onions and garlic and sautéed in olive oil. It’s a must-try dish for anyone new to a Portuguese menu.

My favorite recipe on our menu is Amêijoas a Bulhao Pato, which is clams steamed in white wine and garlic sauce. It’s a traditional dish that originates from Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, and was named in honor of Bulhão Pato, a 19th-century Portuguese poet; of course we have the great privilege of using Rhode Island littlenecks in our version.

It’s not just the food you offer that transports guests across the Atlantic – tell me about your musical events.

We have music performances of some kind every Monday night. It’s such a wonderful atmosphere, we often only have one seating at dinner because no one wants to leave! Fado is the traditional music of Portugal; it’s somber and soulful and there’s a lot of emotion behind the music. We’ve hosted some amazing singers, some visiting all the way from Lisbon to perform, and of course my father takes the stage as well.