Like the classic optical illusion of the faces and the vase, look at Rio and you’ll see two sharply contrasting versions. First is the seemingly easygoing beach city of rubber sandals and gushy greetings as insincere as they are well intentioned. (“Passa lá em casa!” “Come by my home!” The carioca will actually be quite stunned if you show up at his home afterward.)
On the other side of the illusion is the Rio that loves formality, titles, certificates and hierarchies. A Rio judge has a decade-long lawsuit against the doorman of his building, who refused to call him “doctor” and “sir,” which recently reached Brazil’s Supreme Court, which declined the case. Each summer, local businesses debate whether employees can wear shorts to work – remember, the heat index can get above 120 degrees F here. The Rio mayor has issued decrees allowing city workers to forgo long pants, though they must be back on after March.
Santa Filomena falls through the cracks, flouting both Rio’s fun-loving superficiality and needless formality. Nino Gomes had worked in engineering and journalism but wanted a new start when his wife got pregnant. He thought a restaurant would make him happy. He has no training in gastronomy, save YouTube videos he watched to learn how to make pizzas in his earlier days as a pizzeria owner. His hunch was that ingredients tasted better when they were fresh and likewise dishes when they were made from scratch.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to have a degree. It’s more necessary to be humble and know you need to search to find things out,” he says.
That’s how Santa Filomena has come to have some of Rio’s freshest, most inventive and flavorful cooking. The risotto de alho negro com abóbora is made with fermented black garlic, which becomes pungent and sweet mixed with the pumpkin, and Gomes wisely resists the exuberant carioca tendency to test how much cheese and oil a risotto can hold. Same goes for the homemade tamarind and lime soda, which is refreshing rather than a sugar rush. We appreciate the relative lightness in a city whose rich cuisine often veers into hedonistic battered-and-fried excess.
Public-security journalist and drug policy reform advocate Cecília Oliveira, also a frequent consultant for Culinary Backstreets, comes from the state of Minas Gerais, considered a hub for Brazilian sweets, meat and cheeses. She gave her seal of approval to both the burger filó (“The mixture of cheeses came out well”), which is topped with arugula, purple onion, canastra and blue cheeses, and to the homemade doce de leite served with bourbon ice cream, also made in-house.
There’s no chef at Filomena – Gomes and his handful of employees all put their mão na massa (“hand in the dough”), meaning they all get their hands dirty. Gomes’s insistence on homemade ingredients has even come back to bite him: he once lost 60 liters of milk intended for cheesemaking due to spoilage when he got stuck in Rio’s out-of-control traffic.
Even as he wryly pokes at pretentious dining culture, Gomes also has an endearing “Aw, shucks!” modesty when customers praise his dishes. “The carioca has this thing to really embrace their friends and support them, even if it wasn’t very good,” he says dismissively. But in Gomes’s case, there’s no need for his friends to fib.
This review was originally published on May 20, 2014.