There’s a joke that Aguardente—which translates to “fire water” in Portuguese—is so strong it will blind you.
This is the kind of myth that Victor Pereira, the visionary and owner of the newly opened Aguardente on the East Side of Providence, likes to dispel. “If someone says that, I’ll bring over a shot for them to try. We try to challenge people in their perceptions. One of my friends said she doesn’t like mezcals because they’re always smokey, so I brought her one that she loved. My goal is always to rock your world. If you try it and don’t like it, it’s on me. But I want you to step out of your comfort zone, the things you think you like and don’t like.”
Pereira hopes that the restaurant he and his business partners, Natalia Paiva-Neves and Magda León—all three of whom are immigrants—have created will invite conversations in a healthy and positive way.
“My food is storytelling,” says chef Natalia Paiva-Neves, as she tells the story of the night Pereira concocted the plan for Aguardente. “It began with dinner on the beach. I’d planned to make dinner at Victor and Sandy’s [Pereira’s wife] house, not on the beach itself. My husband and Victor started foraging for driftwood and collecting rocks to make a pit and started a fire. I’d brought striped bass that my son had caught, some little necks, and shrimp that were marinating in garlic and olive oil. I told the guys, ‘I don’t know if I can pull this off. I’m good, but not that good.’” But that night they cooked over a raging open fire on a make-shift beach grill, and “it was the best little necks I’ve ever had,” Paiva-Neves says.
That night not only led to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but to two of the recipes you’ll find on the menu, including Pereira’s favorite dish, aptly named “Victor’s Carabineiros” (garlicky jumbo prawns).
From Seafood and Vegetable Paella to Queijo de Cabra—baked goat cheese in a tomato garlic paprika sauce—to Curated Tins of fish, the “fast food” of Lisbon, Paiva-Neves prides herself in preserving family recipes and creating foods that remain true to her Azorean roots.
“The foodies [of Portgual] must live on the Azores,” Pereira says. “There’s more seasoning, more experimental creativity.” Their menu leans heavily in that direction, with additional inspiration from Guatemala, Spain, and Peru.
One of Paiva-Neves gifts is transforming simple ingredients into delicious dishes. “I truly believe anyone can cook, but it is the person cooking who brings feeling and soul to the dish. If you cook with feeling your food will show that.”
“When you’re crossing the border,” Magda León explains, offering context for the five murals she painted inside Aguardente, “you’re told to bring two things: something to cover your head and water. Those two things will save your life.”
León, the resident artist originally from Guatemala, created a series called “An Undocumented Love Story,” drawn from her own life experiences and the stories others have shared with her. “I want undocumented immigrants to know and believe they are welcome here,” she says.
The first mural is an image of innocence. “The flowers represent the woman’s hopes and dreams. There’s an illusion of going to a new land, that it will be a magical solution,” León says. She points out that the baseball cap here is worn for necessity, for survival.
By the time we get to the fourth mural — passing through hardships and disillusionment — we land in limbo, the in-between stage. “This mural I connect the most with the kids who grew up in the US who don’t feel like they fit into either community, where they came from or where they are now,” León says.
And the baseball cap, now worn backwards, is only an accessory. This is a full circle moment.
For Pereira, his story feels like the opposite of assimilation.
“We came here in 1976. I was six-and-a-half years old. My grandmother passed just before we moved, and I’m not going to lie, it was a tough journey for me. Being oneself is hard to do. Whether you’re an immigrant or not, you face losing who you are. And for a long time I wanted to fit in.”
In June Pereira went to Portugal to look at spirits, and almost everything was imported—the entire world seems to be accommodating tourists. Pereira, León, and Paiva-Neves want to remain as authentic as possible. “I don’t want to be the same as everyone else,” Pereira says. “You can get a Miller Lite anywhere. We want people here who want to learn, to develop their tastes, and to become world travelers—because that’s what we’re doing. We’re bringing a different part of the world to Rhode Island.”
Although Pereira has lived in the United States most of his life, and even obtained his US citizenship, he still feels European: the laid-back lifestyle, the way they enjoy late-night dinners and hours-long conversations. “I want to spend a month, or a year, or a lifetime there,” he confesses. “Whenever someone gives me a bottle of real Aguardente, it’s the best thing in the world. It takes me back to who I am.”
Aguardente, 12 Governor St, Providence