I’ve never been to Portugal. Nor had I ever been to Newark, unless you count being stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike directly beneath the flight path for Newark Liberty International Airport.
I’d always wanted to go to one more than the other (I’ll let you guess which is which), but then I learned that I could visit both in one visit to the New Jersey city. Who knew?
Newark’s Ironbound district, adjacent to Newark Penn Station, witnessed an influx of Portuguese immigrants in the mid-20th century. While the area’s ethnic populations have begun to shift in other directions — Brazilian, Ecuadoran and others — businesses owned, operated and influenced by the Portuguese continue to give the Ironbound an Iberian flair.
I decided that European presence was reason enough to plan a day trip to the neighborhood.
I started by walking along Ferry Street, the Ironbound’s main drag. Portuguese flags hung in many windows, with shops bearing typical Portuguese surnames. Some stores posted notices in Portuguese with nary a translation in sight. Buildings here and there sported terra-
cotta-style roofs and other Iberian motifs.
Because travel necessarily equates to food in my book, I made Seabra Foods (123 Ferry St., 973-466-3560, www.seabrasupermarkets.com) my first stop.
The tidy, tiny grocery store occupies a corner lot, with produce lining the sidewalk, beckoning passersby to come and browse. And browse its handful of aisles I did. Over and over again.
I found dainty little cookies from the Azores and bottles of Portuguese olive oil. There was quince paste and chicory-flavored Nestle instant coffee. Tropical fruit beverages and nectars hinted at afternoons spent under the sun at the family casa.
Evocative as it all was, I limited myself to only what I felt I could comfortably add to my already laden backpack: a bottle of pineapple soda and two small chocolate bars.
Given Portugal’s maritime heritage, I knew that I had to pop into the Popular Fish Market (129 Ferry St., 973-344-7939), even though, truth be told, I can’t stand the smell of fish. Here, it was different, however. More like the sea and less like scaly corpses.
Micael Vidreiro pointed out one of the store’s staples: dried, salt-cured cod (bacalhau). “There’s a thousand things you can do with it,” he said.
Actually, it’s more like 70 dishes, said store owner Manuel Mata. Standing in his shop adorned with ships painted into murals, hanging from the ceiling and incorporated into the blue-and-white tiles, the native of Murtosa, Portugal, and grandson of a fisherman said that fellow emigres come from Connecticut, Virginia and Philadelphia to buy his fish.
Previously purchased sweets notwithstanding, I walked into the Pao Da Terra Bakery (135 Ferry St., 862-902-8815) determined to sample a Portuguese pastry. Without labels, the mouth-watering display flummoxed me. I asked the woman behind the counter to show me the one definitive pastry I ought to have. Without hesitation, she pointed to a small round tart. Sold.
It was really good. This was pastel de nata, a flaky, croissantlike crust holding a creamy custard center.
Down the street, in the window of Portugalia Sales (109 Ferry St., 973-589-1416, www.portugalia.com), I learned about a tale from Portuguese folklore about the rooster of Barcelos, which has become a sort of national symbol. The gist, according to the window placard: A condemned man insisted that he hadn’t committed the crime of which he’d been convicted, telling the magistrate who had a roast chicken on his table that “as surely as I am innocent, will that cock crow if I am hanged.” Sure enough, it did, and the man was saved from the noose.
Representations of this famous fowl could be found on a variety of items in the shop, from tablecloths to key chains and bottle stoppers. I was drawn to the shelves and shelves of imported ceramics and could have easily, and relatively inexpensively, kitted out my kitchen with napkin rings, pitchers, bakeware and a miniature olive oil cask with its own tap. If only.
In Lisbon Wines and Liquors (114 Ferry St., 973-344-0139, www.lisbonliquors.com), I perused racks of Portuguese wines and listened to employee Sabino Araujo, from Minho, Portugal, espouse the virtues of the reasonably priced quaffs of his homeland.
These days, though, there aren’t as many Portuguese in Newark to appreciate them, Araujo said. Just a day after the neighborhood’s annual Portugal Day celebration, he observed, “The neighborhood is changing. The Portuguese are leaving.”
After clearing away the remains of my excellent lunch, one of the waiters at Adega Grill (130 Ferry St., 973-589-8830, www.adegagrill.com), a romantic Portuguese restaurant adorned with faux grapevines, echoed Araujo’s sentiments. Making my way back to the train station, I could understand their meaning as I walked past Brazilian shops and wove my way around Spanish-speaking pedestrians.
Then the window at Pegasus Sporting Goods (113 Ferry St., 973-589-3510, www.hookedonsoccer.com) caught my eye. The inside of the soccer shop was buzzing with activity and a riot of colors — jerseys, scarves, neon-tinted shoes. The apparel spanned the world, but clearly the favorite was the Portuguese national team. I got the feeling that at least for a while longer, the Ironbound would be a kind of little Portugal.
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