“ Address: Centro Comercial Vasco da Gama 3º Piso - loja 3008 1990-094 Lisboa „
My life at work has changed a lot this year, mostly for the better, especially in terms of culinary opportunities. In previous years I spent a lot of time in Germany and the Netherlands which can be bleak culinary landscapes but thanks to some changes in the composition of my team, I now get more excuses to go to places where the food is more interesting. This week I was more than happy to be going to visit my colleague in Lisbon, although a bit nervous after hearing that the temperatures were in the high 30s.
Portuguese people LOVE food and even in the middle of the hardest recession for years, it will take more than a 'crisis' to stop them eating out. I realise that 'Portuguese people love food' sounds like one of those generalisations that don't always hold true - like saying the English are obsessed by weather or Germans are very organised. However, all my observations based on several decades of people watching have failed to show me a single living example of a Portuguese person who didn't love to eat or to talk about food. I know what happens in our Lisbon office whenever they hear that someone is coming to visit. People will gather by the coffee machine and plan for their visit. It won't be a case of asking 'What shall we talk about? Who needs to be there?' It will be more simple. The question on everyone's lips - and the subject of much debate will be a more important issue. Where will we take them to eat?
~Di Casa - Italian restaurant~
My first meal was at an Italian restaurant called 'Di Casa' on the top floor of the Vasco da Gama shopping Mall in the Expo area of the city beside the Tagus river. This is an area well worth a visit and was built for the 1998 Expo, a time which looking back seems to be so full of promise and so long before the troubles of the last few years. Fortunately, the financial crisis hasn't hit the area too badly - it's still thronging with visitors and locals and looks as good as it did when I first visited about 6 or 7 years ago.
Di Casa is a chain of Italian restaurants which has been present in Portugal since 1980 when they opened their first restaurant in Estoril. Today there are four or five outlets in Lisbon as well as branches in Estoril, Evora, Vila Nova de Gaia. My colleagues told me that if they want pizza, they generally hunt down a branch of Di Casa in preference to any other Italian restaurants, but if they have the chance and are in the area, they would always go for the Vasco da Gama mall branch because there's lots of parking under the mall, and the views are beautiful.
Di Casa is one of several food outlets on the top floor of the mall. I noticed a noodle bar and an American burger restaurant, both of which were almost empty as consumers voted with their feet and filled up the Di Casa seats instead. The restaurant is in two parts - a large indoor restaurant and an even larger outdoor terrace. Not surprisingly on a sunny August day, the sun-seeking diners had all gone outside to take advantage of both the weather and the views. We were offered one table for three which we turned down since it wasn't well protected from the sun - and my colleagues were looking at my milky-white English skin and wanting to protect me. They spotted another with better sun protection and asked if we could move.
~Sunshine always makes good food taste great~
The terrace was busy and if I'd realised how long our food would take to come, I might have been tempted by the gorgeous garlic bread which I saw being taken to other tables. However, with one colleague doing 'no carbs' in preparation for her holiday and the other ordering pizza and not wanting garlic bread on top, there was no way I was going to attempt to eat a whole portion. We ordered drinks - a Diet Coke, a Coke Zero and a freshly squeezed orange juice - and then made our choices from the long and very tempting menu. Carb-avoiding Isabel chose a 'melanzane salad', Ana asked for a pizza with Parma ham and I chose a dish called 'Tonno Nizard' which I assumed to be a tuna Nicoise.
My orange juice was very clearly freshly squeezed and was delicious. At Euro2.50 for a glass (just under £2) it was quite expensive by local standards and the cokes at Euro2.10 seemed quite pricey considering that the food was very reasonably priced. The salad was a mere Euro6.50, the pizza Euro7.90 and my tuna was Euro9.50. The menu has a large amount of dishes which would normally make me a little nervous as I always feel concerned that a kitchen can't keep too many fresh ingredients without some of them going off or not being as fresh as they should be. The choices include a set of daily and seasonal specials as well as a standard year round menu which includes anti pasti, half a dozen different salads, nearly twenty risotto or pasta dishes, fifteen pizzas plus the option to design your own combination of ingredients, a few meat and two fish dishes, and ten desserts. There should be something for most people with such a long list. For vegetarians the choice is not too bad with eight of the pizzas being meat and fish free (although you might need to check the status of the cheese if you're very strict, and five of the pasta dishes also apparently vegetarian. By local standards, that's an impressive amount of choice in a land where vegetarians are rarer than hens' teeth.
Isabel's salad was enormous. She glibly stated that with no carbs she obviously needs to eat a lot in order to get through the day and started ploughing through a mountain of beef tomato slices topped with slices of grilled aubergine and courgette with large 'blobs' of fresh mozzarella perched on top. Ana's pizza was on the thinnest base I've ever seen - looking more like a giant poppadom than a pizza base. How they can get the dough that thin without breaking, is a mystery and a marvel. It was topped with lots of melted cheese and many slices of Parma ham. I regretted not having chosen a pizza when I saw how good it looked. My tuna Nicoise was also excellent with two mid-sized steaks of tuna and a mound of salad. The tuna was cooked perfectly, seared on the outside but still slightly pink in the middle. My only slight complaint would be that one of the two pieces had been cut in such a way that there were still a lot of bones in it and I had to chew very carefully to avoid swallowing them. The salad was a mix of rocket, halved cherry tomatoes, lots of thinly sliced cucumber and pieces of red onion. These were dressed with what for me was a bit too much balsamic vinegar and I'm not a fan in general of pre-dressed salads. No salt was provided and I didn't want to draw attention to my bad habit but I couldn't help thinking the fish needed a bit of seasoning.
~Practical issues and payment~
With the service quite slow, we decided to skip coffees and head back to the office. I picked up the bill for the three of us at just under Euro33 (currently around £26) which I felt was very good value. The only problem we had was getting back to the car park as the lift to the top floor seemed to have got out of sync and after five minutes of waiting we took the stairs instead. For anyone with mobility issues, there should be no problems other than the dodgy lift. For families, children are accepted and welcomed in most Portuguese restaurants although oddly I don't recall seeing any families over lunch time.
Vasco da Gama Shopping Centre
3rd Floor - 3008 Store
Phone: 218 922 290