When friends Paulo Sebastião, Paulo Pina and Paulo Neves decided in 2018 to open Isco Pão e Vinho, a small bakery-café, they knew they wanted to be in Alvalade, a Lisbon neighborhood at the edge of the city’s busy center. “We didn’t want to be dependent on tourists, we wanted a neighborhood clientele, and I have to say that 80 percent of the clients here are recurring,” says Pina, who has long worked as a business consultant, a job he still does in addition to running Isco.
But the choice of Alvalade presented the pair with a challenge: It can be difficult to stand out in the neighborhood, which has an impressive density of bakeries, restaurants and cafés per square mile. Still, Isco, located on one of the area’s busier streets, has made a name for itself as a spot for a cup of good coffee, a high-quality loaf of bread or a fresh sandwich with a glass of wine – in other words, the comforts of everyday life.
The duo shared a passion for baking good bread (although their cinnamon and cardamom buns are equally delicious and some of the best in Lisbon, thanks to the fact that Sebastião, known for the bread-centric blog Zinedepão, previously worked in Sweden), and they saw an opening for a high-quality bakery in Alvalade. “At Isco, we care deeply about the origin of the products we use,” Pina adds, a care that’s reflected in the bakery’s many varieties of sourdough bread, from wheat to spelt, barley to corn, buckwheat and more.
The flours for their delicious crusty bread come mostly from Farinhas Paulino, a miller who also supplies other great bakers such as The Millstone Sourdough and Terço do Meio. Some flours, like the organic rye flour, are imported when necessary, as they can’t be found year-round in Portugal. The spelt and rye bread is one of Isco’s bestsellers, a brilliant loaf of bread with a gentle texture perfect for sandwiches or just cheese and butter.
But Pina sees Isco as a comforting pastelaria (a mix of a bakery and café, with pastries), which is why they offer cinnamon and cardamom buns but also croissants and other pastries. Light and delicate, their pastries are incredibly popular and pair perfectly with the coffee from Flor da Selva.
But since the beginning they had a desire to do more than bread and baked goods – a desire that’s evident in their name and the fact that they also serve lunch and dinner. “We wanted to have seasonal meals connected with bread as well as other fermented products like wine, hence the name Isco Pão e Vinho [isco means sourdough starter, pão means bread and vinho is wine],” Pina explains.
Isco’s delicious lunches and themed dinners are what set them apart in the neighborhood.
Isco’s delicious lunches and themed dinners are what set them apart in the neighborhood, especially since Gleba – one the first sourdough bakeries to open in Lisbon – has expanded to Alvalade too. Natalie Castronet leads the kitchen and organized the themed events, which usually revolve around places (like the upcoming Madrid one on June 25 and 26) or partnerships with other chefs (like the upcoming one with Hugo Brito from Boi Cavalo on June 30). Previously they’ve hosted a Porto-themed dinner (featuring their own take on the francesinha), a special French night and even a spicy malagueta chile series with journalist Ricardo Felner. These special events will continue through the summer, with announcements being made on Instagram and Facebook.
The events are a way to liven things up and encourage a bit of fun, especially after the long pandemic winter. Isco survived the multiple lockdowns with takeaway and deliveries, selling not only bread and pastries but also their butter, cheese and small plates. The business has experienced many ups and downs, but for now they’re looking forward to the summer.
One of the ways they’re keeping things exciting is by experimenting with their loaves. In addition to the more typical cereal loafs and baguettes, their barley bread is made with spent grain from Dois Corvos, a local craft brewery. “It gives the bread an interesting texture and a strong and intense acidity,” Pina tells us.
With some newish bakers on their team of four (Sebastião left the business at the end of 2019 to go back to Sweden), Isco is getting ready for a “hot” summer in the kitchen. The 29-year-old Joana Costa has been at the bakery-café for over a year and finds the experience “spectacular.” Compared to the restaurants where she previously worked, “the rhythm here is very distinct, as is the sharing of knowledge. Working and learning with Matthieu Raud [the baker who came in after Paulo Sebastião left] has been a privilege.” Seeing the bakers in action in the early morning is a bonus, especially since the oven and prep station are facing the public.
The artisanal pastries require a lot of technique, but Costa enjoys the challenge. “Also we only use butter, no margarine in the baking,” she adds. When they have the time, the bakers like to improvise and get creative with the pastries, but thankfully the Swedish buns and light airy croissants are always on the menu. Which may help explain why despite there being so many pastelarias in Alvalade, we keep finding ourselves returning to Isco.
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