Byline: Alison Oneacre
NEW YORK — In a city with foreign food of every stripe dotting every corner, the scarcity of Portuguese restaurants — there are only four listings in this year’s Zagat — might seem like a broad gastronomic oversight. But at Pico, a picturesque little restaurant in TriBeCa opened by chef John Villa and Mark Raskauskas, New Yorkers can now relax with their fix of Portuguese foods.
When Villa joined Raskauskas and his wife, Maria Valim, on their 1999 summer vacation to Valim’s beach house in her native Pico, the idea for a traditional Portuguese restaurant with modern American touches was born.
No sooner had they touched down in New York than the couples purchased a 3,000-square-foot warehouse on Greenwich Street in TriBeCa and called upon Villa’s wife, Regina Graves, an accomplished set designer who has worked on Woody Allen films like “Celebrity” and “Sweet and Lowdown,” as well as “Coyote Ugly” and “Pollock,” to begin crafting the interior.
“You couldn’t put an old-fashioned Portuguese restaurant in TriBeCa. It has to be hip and sexy,” explains Graves, who made use of Valim’s knowledge of Portugal to develop a look that was authentic but updated.
“We would order Thai food and pore over samples at Regina’s,” says Valim, who insisted that the palette be yellow and blue, the country’s ubiquitous color combination. The foursome spent a week driving across Portugal raking in antiques, like the dark ebonized wood armoire that now sits in the main dining room and the traditional Portuguese pottery that studs the credenza.
“Here, I went to school for interior design, and I know about French, Spanish and Italian furniture, but I didn’t even knew there was a Portuguese style,” Graves says. “We could never have found this stuff in Manhattan.”
Under Graves’s supervision, both couples’ families joined in to complete the work. “Mark’s mother primed the walls downstairs, my uncle’s building the chef’s table and my sister painted the murals on the wall,” Graves explains.
“It’s been a real labor of love,” added Valim, who gave Villa, formerly a chef at the JUdson Grill, a lesson in Portuguese cooking when she invited him to eat and cook with her family. The result is a menu loaded with hearty, peasant fare: grilled fish coated in sea salt, spit-roasted suckling pig and duck braised in terra cotta.
The family affair concludes — or perhaps begins — with Pico’s mascot, a 6-foot-tall rooster sculpted from copper wire by Graves’s sister, that greets customers at the door and looks as though it might have walked right out of one of Woody Allen’s early pictures.
“You’ll never see anything like this anywhere else,” Graves laughs.
And what would Graves’s pal Woody say if he could see her work at Pico? Graves thinks she knows: “Wow.”