"I like to feed your soul,” says Natalia Paiva Neves, and anyone who knows her would agree. The owner of O Dinis, the popular Portuguese eatery in East Providence, has made cooking at home a greater focus as she rides out this tumultuous time in the world’s restaurant industry. “We were shut down literally overnight,” she reflects, describing the uncertainty at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period, Paiva Neves’ Barrington home has become her refuge – particularly, her backyard, where she does nearly all of her cooking for family and small gatherings continuing long into the year. “I’m out there through Christmas… my husband will make a path for me in the snow to get the grill,” she says, laughing.
Paiva Neves explains that while core Portuguese ingredients including onions, garlic, and olive oil are still present, as summer approaches she reintroduces lighter flavors and squeezes of citrus. “To me, lemon, lime, and lots of herbs just screams ‘summer is here’ and I tend to use that a lot in the spring and summer seasons with foods like fish, chicken, and even beef.” Another ingredient that finds its way into her culinary cadre are bay leaves from her mother’s front yard in California. “She picks the leaves and dries them in her garage. Then she ships them to me in giant Ziplock bags,” she says. “I put them in the fish stew, which I tend to make whole – the bones and the head stay on the fish. Absolutely delicious.”
In her backyard, Paiva Neves and her husband have created different spaces to dine and entertain, mostly inspired by their travels. “There are several different rooms,” she explains. Their “Moroccan oasis,” with an abundance of throw pillows amid gauzy white drapery catching the breeze, was inspired by their February 2020 trip to the small coastal town of Mazunte, Mexico, and often is the starting point for cocktails and light bites. Dinner transitions to the main dining table, and dessert may be served in a small, poolside, bistro-style nook. “I don’t like everyone sitting in one area the whole time,” she says.
Cooking at home gives Paiva Neves more freedom than cooking at O Dinis. While she may go to the farmers market or a farm stand (Four Town Farm in Seekonk and Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton are some of her favorites) with certain ingredients on her shopping list, she says it’s not uncommon to come across something completely unexpected and change her meal planning entirely. Paiva Neves once created a backyard seafood festival for a small group of friends featuring steamed lobsters, steamers, grilled fish from the haul her son caught that morning, and a snail salad she made from 10 pounds of freshly caught conch. She also served grilled pork from a local farm to please landlubbers.
Now over a year into the pandemic Paiva Neves has adjusted quite a bit to the tumultuous times of the past year. With limited capacity still an issue, only allowing for limited tables with social distancing and takeout, she has been able to keep the restaurant going. The change in hours and days of operation from the past year just returned in early April to the restaurant’s traditional operating hours. Paiva Neves is thrilled and plans to bring back their historic Monday night music as soon as possible.
“It has taken a lot to adjust to the pandemic, but over a year in, it feels like I’ve figured out how to work within what we are all experiencing,” says Paiva Neves, who was able to use the “down-time” to remodel the interior of the restaurant so patrons will see a freshened up look. She also launched her own website/blog with a YouTube channel where she shares food and cocktail recipes, cooking videos, entertaining tips, travel experience and gardening advice. Learn more at NataliaPaivaNeves.com