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When they come into this shoebox of a pizzeria that still looks like the pé sujo (“dirty foot”) bar it previously was, clients often ask: But where’s Chico? That’s because they’re expecting Santa Teresa’s most beloved pizza chef to be a rotund and cherry-cheeked grandfatherly figure, perhaps in a red or green apron to make the point hit home.

The toothy-grinning and somewhat lanky real Chico is instead someone who likes wearing running shoes to work so he can sprint out of his kitchen to greet the passersby on this cobblestone street for which he feels such affection he turned down a proposal to move to California. (More on that later. It involves Sylvester Stallone.)

Chico’s pizza trajectory started with a scholarship in Italy to study industrial design, a course he’d eventually abandon. He got a job as an assistant cook in a pizzeria, but the owner failed to hire a proper cook when Chico started. The task fell to the 20-something Brazilian backpacker. “There were 400 Italians, all wanting to eat pizza,” he said of his first night.

None of his came out round that night, and the variety of shapes he made was so amusing it would even be written about in a local newspaper. As he traveled around Europe, he used his pizza and pasta skills to earn his keep, picking up restaurant jobs or selling frozen pizzas and lasagna door-to-door that were so good, he said, he would declare to Italians that they could tell their spouses they had made them from scratch.

Pizzaria do Chico's eponymous owner, photo by Taylor BarnesChico was ready to live a life more footloose. But when he came back to this steep street at the base of the Santa Teresa hillside neighborhood, he felt a longing for this romantic corner tucked away in otherwise densely populated Rio and for the his parents and their charming home covered with grapevines.

There was an old bar on the street that Chico says was falling apart when he bought it 17 years ago. He wasn’t radical about turning it around aesthetically: the pizzeria has nine plastic tables with shiny green tarps for tablecloths, tucked behind a gate of high bars and with some knickknack decorations. His football memorabilia are tricolor, which means he’s a fan of Rio’s Fluminense team. They’re also the same three colors on the Italian flag.

What makes his pies popular are the thin crusts, which are crispy while still preserving a satisfying chew, a deviation from the Brazilian white, bready variety. They’re also a local favorite for having toppings nicely caprichado (capricious, which Brazilians use to mean their food has fanciful ingredients and in abundant portions). We were most impressed with his rústica, which is scattered with plump, spiced porcini mushrooms, artichoke hearts and just the right amount of juicy capers to give the pizza a savory finish.

He’ll spin tales for guests, like the one about the castle he lived in for free in Italy because there was a ghost in it (“But she never showed up. There was just a cat,” according to Chico, who said it was lonely in there). Or how he introduced a beloved Brazilian ingredient to the people of Italy. “I was the first person to order heart of palm in Italy,” he said. “It didn’t exist in the 1990s.” Now it’s on his menu at Pizzaria do Chico.

Pizzaria do Chico, photo by Taylor BarnesAccording to Chico, his little pé sujo has had its brushes with fame: Elton John said he wouldn’t perform in Rio until he had the pizza delivered to his hotel, and Stallone liked him so much he invited him to open a venue in California.

Chico was blasé about growth. “But am I going to leave my parents here?” he asked. On the sidewalk next to the pizzeria, his father played an hours-long game of cards with two men. He came to Brazil as a refugee during World War II and still speaks Portuguese with an Italian accent as thick as the humid summer air around him. A kid passed by and yelled for Chico to watch him pop a wheelie on his bicycle, which the chef eagerly ran to watch. It may have been 17 years since Chico opened his place on this short street, but he is still boyishly excited to see the small antics of daily life that go on around him.

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Taylor Barnes

Published on June 02, 2016

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