579 Warren Ave., East Providence
Open Mon-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Sun, 12-9:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Our introduction to Portuguese food took place at an East Providence institution called Estrela Do Mar. Its founder, Dinis Paiva, sold it several years ago and subsequently opened O Dinis (Chez Dinis), a spot frequented by many of his faithful customers and others who have heard through the grapevine, as we did, of its simple, but dependable kitchen,
We landed in this modest café on a recent rainy evening, taking a table as far away as possible from the smoke-filled corner where a TV was tuned to a soccer game (Brazil was playing). O Dinis is the kind of place where old friends can linger all afternoon over a bottle of vinho verde, and the waitstaff warmly greet almost everyone who comes in by name.
The waitresses were just as friendly to us non-regulars and very patient with our questions about the specials (the haddock fillets were sold out by five, but the octopus came highly recommended). From the quartet of appetizers, we chose our favorite: camarão à Alhinho (shrimp in lemon-garlic sauce, $7.95). Other possibilities include littlenecks in white wine and garlic sauce, littlenecks in tomato and onion sauce, and grilled chouriço (Portuguese sausage).
The camarão dish contains more than a dozen fat shrimp sautéed with slices of fresh garlic and lots of lemon juice. The surrounding paprika-red sauce kept us returning to the breadbasket for pieces to sop up every drop. This dish also comes in a dinner portion with rice and French fries (the presence of two starches is a Portuguese custom).
The menu’s bargains are the two sandwiches: steak for $3; pork filet for $2.50 (add $1 for fries). Combine that with soup, which is often the popular Portuguese kale soup, and you’re set for the day — and maybe the next day as well.
But we were on track to eat other favorites, and Bill ordered the traditional carne de porco à Alentejana ($9.95), a pork-and-littlenecks combo said to have tested true Christian fervor when served to strangers, since its ingredients were forbidden to Jews and Muslims. Bill displays his own carnivorous fervor when he attacks this dish, and at O Dinis, the garlic-and-herb marinated pork chunks create a delicious gravy when simmered with the roasted potatoes and littlenecks.
I was torn between grilled boneless chicken in a wine, butter, and garlic sauce, or the salt cod with potatoes. The latter won out, even though it wasn’t served in its familiar casserole incarnation. This was bacalhau na Brasa ($10.50), reconstituted salt cod that is grilled and served with large boiled potatoes, the whole smothered in olive oil and topped with sautéed onions. The potatoes and olive oil are a good foil for the saltiness of the cod, a fish beloved by the Portuguese from when they discovered the Grand Banks in the 15th-century and salted their catch to get it back home across the Atlantic.
O Dinis offers other tempting Portuguese dishes: grilled tenderloin with a fried egg on top; shish kabobs of marinated pork, beef, and chicken, or squid and shrimp; and steak in a beer and garlic sauce, topped with a fried egg. Portions are family-sized (two people could eat for two days from these meals), and no dinner is more than $12.
The restaurant’s decor is minimal: black-and-white asphalt-tiled floors; tables covered with the same cream-and-slate blue plaid fabric as the valences at the windows, the cloth protected by a sheet of plastic and paper place mats atop that. The woodwork, including a chair rail, is painted black, with a white stucco-like paint below and knotty pine above. Framed black and white photos of the Azores are here and there, and on a beam running across the middle of the dining room hang wicker wine flasks, iron skillets, and other souvenirs from the Old Country.
The desserts are chocolate cake, cheesecake, flan, and bean cake. The first two are store-bought, the latter two made by local home cooks. Our waitress commiserated with us about how they were out of flan, and she urged us to return to taste it. We settled for the bean cake, with a red bean puree for its base. This is actually more like a custard pie, with a smooth, heavy texture. Unfortunately, this version was too sweet for us to finish, but we’re looking forward to that flan.
For such a small establishment, O Dinis has two-dozen Portuguese wines: half red, a half-dozen vinho verdes, plus whites and rosés. Most are available by the glass or in half-bottles, so be sure to ask about those options, as well as about customer favorites.
With the radio tuned to a Portuguese station in our nook of the dining room and all the waitresses around us speaking Portuguese, I felt at one point as though I’d been transported to a different country. The wonderful thing about O Dinis is that even just the food can do this. With octopus among the specials and bean cake to finish off the meal, this eatery is a world of its own.