In Lisbon, Alfama is the name of the historic center of the city, built around a medieval castle. Today a neighborhood of narrow, twisty streets, and little houses, Alfama is also the center of hip, Bohemian life in the city, overlaid with a healthy spread of international tourism. In New York, Alfama is the name of little Portuguese restaurant in Midtown. After years of procuring their loaves elsewhere, last year its owners decided to hire a baker to make their own Portuguese style bread in their kitchen overnight.
"We wanted to make something artisanal," said co-owner Tarcisio Costa, "something that's not mass produced, that didn't pass through anyone else's hands, and that's Portuguese."
Alfama's miniscule bakery—essentially one little oven in a corner of the kitchen—makes bread for the restaurant and a pocket retail operation consisting of a few shelves of bread just inside the front door. Even if you've sampled the Portuguese delights of Newark's Ironbound district, a trip to Alfama's bread counter is well worth the trouble.
The restaurant's signature loaf is its broa, the classic Portuguese cornbread. There are many regional variations on broa, from massive loaves with a deeply cracked crust to the lighter and more refined. The Alfama version tends toward the refined side, with a smooth crust and a dense but somehow not heavy crumb. Traditional ways of eating broa include thin slices topped with cheese or jam, chunks for dipping in stews, or slabs topped with grilled sardines, garlic, and olive oil.
According to Tarcisio, his restaurant's pao de bico is another Portuguese favorite, a favorite of diners in Lisbon's cafes. It's a long, thin, crisp, white flour loaf; obviously, it's a baguette. "In Lisbon," he says, "they love to eat baguettes and croissants." Just like in France, they top their pao de bico with butter, jam, ham, and whatever else they choose. And although the name is different, this loaf clearly holds its own against any of the city's more Frenchified baguettes. Its crust is crisp but chewy, with a moist crumb with a faint wisp of sour from the starter. It's totally addictive.
For a more exotic loaf, you should try Alfama's pao de deus, also known as "God's bread" or "heavenly bread." It's a large, slightly sweet roll topped with a generous portion of shredded coconut. You can eat as is with coffee, or maybe spread with jam. But the Portuguese love the combination of sweet and savory, so they slice it in half and stuff it with cheese or, better still, ham and cheese.
Alfama's little bakery also makes delicious raisin walnut bread and two types of savory foccaccias. But I can't resist an excursion into pastry territory to honor their pasteis de nata, or egg custard tarts. I've tried these Portuguese specialties everywhere from Hong Kong to Manhattan's Chinatown to Newark—but not Lisbon—and the Alfama version is the best yet. Topped with the faintest hint of powdered cinnamon, they're tiny, crisp, and bordering on achingly sweet. One of them just makes a mouthful, but oh what a mouthful.