The Restaurant at 275 East St. on Ludlow's main drag is an easy place to like. Perhaps it's the word "cafe" in the name - it's similar to the kind of small spot you wander into in a strange city, where everyone seems to know each other, the food is good and the portions are ample. My friend Jeff talks about the "tingle" he gets from walking by a good restaurant. Primavera gives you that kind of tingle.
It's modest and unpretentious, seating around 50, with a small bar and part of the kitchen jutting into the dining room. On a Tuesday night the place is only half-full; many of the people there seem to know each other. At the bar, two men conduct a long discussion about cooking meat: "If you do that, you've just ruined $30 worth of steak," one says, to which the other offers a mumbled reply.
Primavera serves what I think of as "honest food" - that is, it has identifiable ingredients, plus some seasonings that merge into a larger flavor, and it is cooked by someone who would not be afraid to hand you the plate personally. In this case, the cook uses recipes from the owner, .Jack (Rocha) Nuno, but has also added some ingredients that not even Nuno knows. It is a winning combination.
I start with codfish cakes, six ovals of bacalhau (salt cod), which has been soaked for days to remove the salt, then mixed with mashed potatoes and deep fried. There is so little salt left in the cod that I find myself sprinkling a little on the cakes. They are accompanied by a dozen olives. Mariscada is the Portuguese version of a Mediterranean seafood stew. Primavera's reading is a tomato-based sauce with hot-pepper kick and some beer to smooth it out clams; mussels, sea scallops and half a chicken lobster complete the dish, which is served in a Dutch oven. It comes with rice, but I find myself using the soup spoon on the sauce, which has taken on the flavors of the seafood. Thoroughly satisfying. I also try the pork and clams, which is another immense plate. Pieces of pork and littleneck clams steamed in a red-wine sauce are layered over cubes of fried potatoes, with some olives and a garnish of what I think is a pickled carrot. Again, I don't waste any of the sauce, swirling the potatoes to mop it up. Dessert is a flan. For you crème Brule fans, it is another version of this custard, with the caramelized sugar sauce placed in the mold before the custard is added. When the flan is unmolded, the sauce pours over it and fills the deep plate in which it is served. The dish is not too sweet and the sauce has a little burnt-sugar edge that goes well with both the custard and the espresso on the side. THERE IS A LOT of Portuguese being spoken around me and, anticipating a language barrier, lout myself as a writer to the server. Since she has been watching me trying to surreptitiously take notes, it is not much of an outing. Vanessa is delighted to walk me through the menu and to translate for me. The owner, Nuno, whom everyone calls Rocha, comes over to talk. He tells me that he worked a variety of jobs in his native Portugal. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the Portuguese army, assisted a diving company in Angola with something to do with diamonds, sold furniture, and then bought a restaurant in Caldas da Rainha in the Óbidos area, an hour from Lisbon.
He sold that, however, when he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1989. After working in a number of area restaurants, he eventually decided he could come up with a place where the food was prepared more to his taste and the business was run to his liking. In 1997, he leased the space that houses Primavera from its owner, who was running a small, not very crowded restaurant. Two years later, Rocha was successful enough to buy the building and renovate it.
Part of his success was due to the fact that Ludlow has a large Portuguese community, but the food is what has kept people coming back. Over the past 10 years, Rocha has developed a menu that features various combinations of pork beef, shrimp, clams, codfish and chouriça prepared Portuguese-style. Appetizers range from Pasteis de Bacalhau (cod cakes) and Chourica Assada (flaming sausage!) for $6.50 to Camarão a Casa (home-style spicy shrimp) Camarão Frito (fried shrimp) for $8.50. Seafood dishes such as Halibut Grelhado (grilled halibut) and Arroz de Tamboril (monkfish on rice) an around $13.50, with the Mariscada at the market price, which was $22 the night I was there. There is grill, T-bone steak for $14, sirloin steak $13.50 and Bife na Pedra (beef cooked on a rock) for $16.50. That dish takes little extra time: It requires 30 minutes to heat the rock on which the meat cooked.
The wine list is Portuguese, except for a lone Shiraz. Casal Garcia at $12 and Solar Alvarinho at $22 are the whites, and the reds range up to $3 except for a $68 vinho tinto. Customer favorites are Aveleda, a fruity white priced at $13, and Monte Alentejano a $16 red.
While we were talking, Vanessa pointed out the Javali, a grilled pork steak for $13.50, and the Febras, pork strips sautéed in sauce, for $12.50. Both are popular, she told me, and; they're on my list for my next visit. Primavera is open for lunch as well when you can get the Febras, Peito de Galinha Grelhado (grilled chicken) and some other dishes for around $8, and sandwiches for around $5.
Ludlow is a little off the beaten path for people from Northampton and Amherst, but if you find yourself se of the Holyoke Range, Primavera is worth the trip. And if you go during the day, you can even stop into the Portuguese bakery and butcher shop across the street and take something home for later.