“I like to feed your soul,” says Natalia Paiva Neves, and anyone who knows her would agree. The owner of O Dinis, the popular Portuguese eatery in East Providence, has made cooking at home a greater focus as she rides out this tumultuous time in the Rhode Island’s (and the nation’s) restaurant industry. “We were shut down literally overnight,” reflects Paiva Neves, describing the uncertainty at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paiva Neves’ Barrington home has become her refuge – particularly, her backyard, where she does nearly all of her cooking for family and small gatherings continuing long into the year. “I’m out there through Christmas… my husband will make a path for me in the snow to get the grill,” she says, laughing.
This time of year, Paiva Neves swaps citrus-based dishes for warmer flavors. She says that while core Portuguese ingredients including onions, garlic, and olive oil are still present, she introduces autumnal spices like Spanish smoked paprika. “To me, that just screams, ‘autumn is here!’ and I tend to use that a lot in the fall with foods like beef or lamb stew.” Another ingredient that finds its way into her culinary cadre are bay leaves from her mother’s front yard in California. “She picks the leaves and dries them in her garage. Then she ships them to me in giant Ziplock bags,” she says. “I put them in the fish stew, which I tend to make whole – the bones and the head stay on the fish. Absolutely delicious.”
In her backyard, Paiva Neves and her husband have created different spaces to dine and entertain, mostly inspired by their travels. “There are several different ‘rooms,’” she explains. Their “Moroccan oasis,” with an abundance of throw pillows amid gauzy white drapery catching the breeze, was inspired by their February trip to the small coastal town of Mazute, Mexico, and often is the starting point for cocktails and light bites. Dinner transitions to the main dining table, and dessert may be served in a small, poolside, bistro-style nook. “I don’t like everyone sitting in one area the whole time,” she says.
Cooking at home gives Paiva Neves more freedom than cooking at O Dinis, she says. While she may go to the farmers market or a farm stand (Four Town Farm in Seekonk and Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton are some of her favorites) with certain ingredients on her shopping list, she says it’s not uncommon to come across something completely unexpected and change her meal planning entirely.
Recently, Paiva Neves created a backyard seafood festival for a small group of friends featuring steamed lobsters, steamers, grilled fish from the haul her son caught that morning, and a snail salad she made from 10 pounds of freshly caught conch. (She also served grilled pork from a local farm to please landlubbers.)
Because take-out “doesn’t pay the bills” and indoor dining is only at 65 percent capacity (she cannot accommodate the 75 percent capacity allowance if tables are spaced at six feet), the pandemic has been immensely challenging. But the downtime did allow her to complete a host of things on her wish list, including remodeling the interior of the restaurant, launching a new website for it, creating a new social media plan, and launching a YouTube channel with cooking videos. Learn more at NataliaPaivaNeves.com