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More than forty years ago, on the corner of Porto’s Rua da Alegria, or “Street of Joy,” sat an old charcoal shop. In 1978, after many years working in a renowned local restaurant, Fernanda (Nanda) Sousa took over the shop with her husband and, together with another couple, they converted it into what’s locally known as a “pastoral house.” With barrels of wine scattered about and ham hocks hanging from the ceiling, it was the quality of the food, not the interior, that elevated Casa Nanda to restaurant status.

Now, 40 years on and having stared Covid-19 down, Casa Nanda has reopened on Rua da Alegria after a months-long renovation. Like before, the eatery mirrors its hometown: It is small, without pretention and unable to offer anything less than the simplest, most comfortable things in life. It is here that the people of Porto have been going for some of the most traditional Portuguese food – and it’s a place where they always feel at home.

Casa Nanda

Nanda’s daughter, Rosária Sousa, who works at the restaurant, speaks to us about this simplicity through one dish in particular: bifes de cebolada, thin steaks braised with lots of onion. “Our version cannot be found anywhere else,” she says. “It’s made like it used to be. There’s no sweet and sour, there’s no Port wine, there’s nothing like that – and it’s really good.”

Like the diners who keep coming back to Casa Nanda, Rosária also couldn’t leave the family’s restaurant behind her. After getting a degree in human resources management – “just because my mother wanted me to have a university degree” – Rosária quickly realized that her parents’ restaurant was where she wanted to be. “It makes me happy to be here, to talk to people. I have absolutely no regrets about leaving my job for this. I like to serve food that I’m sure people will like,” she says with confidence. And she is positive of this outcome, especially since she is the one who takes care of the shopping: “Fresh fish and meat come every day. The vegetables always come from the Mercado do Bolhão. Our fishmonger has been the same since we opened, and the butcher has also been with us for a long time.”

Everything is always fresh at Casa Nanda, Rosária insists, telling us that they are perfectly fine letting customers know when they weren’t able to find certain products, but that they’ll keep an eye out for them the next day. In more than four decades of serving several generations of customers, some of them every day, Casa Nanda wants to “be real in what we are doing, serve food that is trustworthy, faithful, and not fool anyone,” guarantees Rosária. “We want to bring to the table exactly what people come here for.”

Casa Nanda

For those who live to serve others, the pandemic hit Casa Nanda hard emotionally. “We don’t like to do takeaway, no restaurant does,” Rosária explains. “What we like is to be with people, to receive them, always with the intention that they will leave here happier than they arrived.” Still, the pandemic proved an opportunity for Casa Nanda to renew itself. It closed for a few months this year, and recently opened with a new look.

If the space “has nothing to do with what it used to be,” according to Rosária, the main event – the food – “remains exactly the same.”

The newspaper clippings that used to adorn the walls were pulled down, the blue and yellow tile swapped for wood paneling. A touch more sophisticated and modern, the small restaurant all of a sudden feels more spacious (perhaps it’s the wall of mirrors), like there is room to fit the ever-present demand from those working in area businesses. “I always found that the quality of the food did not match the room, that people needed to feel more comfortable, a touch of refinement to match what we served,” Rosária says. After a few months of construction work, an improved Casa Nanda reopened its doors in October to a city ready to get back to eating.

Better insulation has improved both the acoustics and temperature, new bathrooms were installed and the kitchen remodeled. “We demolished everything and built it anew,” Rosária says. “People now come to lunch and dinner with more peace of mind. It is calmer, the conditions better. They’ve always deserved more than what we could give,” she adds.

If the space “has nothing to do with what it used to be,” according to Rosária, the main event – the food – “remains exactly the same.” We are relieved at her words. While we are generally happy to see our favorite places making improvements, with updates, a change in menu quality is always a concern. Next, we put it to the test.

Rosária’s guarantee rings true. There are some new additions on the menu, yes – but the pataniscas (cod fritters) are fresh from the fryer, the ham hails from Casa do Porto Preto, the alheira sausage is made from wild game. There is octopus with green sauce, prawns with garlic and, for dessert, toucinho do céu (a sinfully delicious almond cake called “bacon from heaven,” on account of the lard used in its original version).

Like the rest of Porto, we come for the fish fillets with beans and rice, the Portuguese stew, the cabidela (chicken giblets, rice and hen’s blood), the rojões (fried boneless pork), the Braga-style cod, the roasted goat and, of course, the tripas à moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe stew) – a typically heavy dish that is somehow so light and fluffy that some have described it as cloudlike. Everything in the stew feels like it was steamed, giving it an airy quality. The beans in particular shine; they are soft and pillowy, not hard at all.

“The kitchen team has remained faithful over these 40 years,” Rosária says. Even the wood burning oven is the same as always, “and it will always be kept that way,” she says with finality. We believe her.

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Cláudia BrandãoRicardo Castelo

Published on December 09, 2021

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