by Sam Gugino
Though Portuguese wines have come a long way in the past 20 years (see below), Portuguese cuisine is still a mystery to most folks. So, you’ll excuse Lorival Felix (just call him Felix) and his son Rick (née Ricardo) for hedging their bets at Massa, their restaurant in Ambler, by putting Italian, Spanish, Greek, even American dishes on the menu.
“We didn’t want to be too specific because we wanted to reach as broad an audience as possible,” Rick said. “Also, Portuguese cuisine is a bit too rustic. People around here don’t want to see fish with heads and tails, the way the Portuguese serve fish.”
This hybrid approach seems to have worked. Massa celebrated its fifth birthday on April 20.
Spanish guitar music plays as you stroll down a long wainscoted corridor into the even longer dining room flanked by two large walls painted red and sand and dotted with torch sconces. Dark wood trim, tables and chairs add a fitting contrast.
Massa means dough, not surprising since Felix once had a pizza joint. Pizza is still prominent on the menu. The crusts are crisp and delicious and the toppings fresh and colorful.
The pizza dough is also used to make the light and chewy dinner rolls, which came to the table hot enough to start a bonfire. You’ll be asking for more to dip into several dishes beginning with the Ameijoas a Espanhola, a classic example of how well the Iberians (the Portuguese and Spanish) combine shellfish and pork. In this instance, bacon and chourico, the Portuguese version of chorizo, provide the foil for tender clams bobbing in a rich, if salty broth.
The clam and pork marriage was more tenuous in the Carne di Porco a Alentejana, which features cubes of pork loin instead of bacon and chourico and includes potatoes and pickled carrots. All the elements were first rate. It’s just that they didn’t seem to coalesce.
Lobster gnocchi is an oddly satisfying dish. The fluffy pasta morsels are nicely crisped on the outside and surrounded by a bright lemon sauce. However, the only lobster flavor I could discern was in the sweet flesh of the mini lobster tail that sat on the gnocchi like a hen on her eggs. A swirl of cooked arugula adds a dash of color and texture.
Maple glazed duck breast was one of the best duck dishes I’ve had in years. The glaze and the accompanying carrot puree were judiciously laced with sriracha, the hot sauce that’s giving Tabasco nightmares.
For dessert, there is a variety to choose from, all homemade except the ice cream in the revolving ice cream cake (banana on my visit). And while all four I sampled (including Delicias, a traditional Portuguese custard with crumbled cookie topping) were rich and pleasant, none were particularly exciting.
Service was perfectly fine. Not a fish head in sight. Massa, 131-A E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, 215-641-0900, massabyo.com. Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 3 – 9 p.m.; Reservations and credit cards accepted. Dinner entrees, $17-$30. Pizza and stromboli, $11-$16. Prix fixe menu ($35) Tuesday-Thursday.
If you’re of a certain age, you can remember that Portuguese wine meant Mateus or Lancers, whose bottles were appreciated more as candleholders than for their contents. Since then the quality of Portuguese wines has increased dramatically. And while prices have crept up with progress, there are still many values to be had.
Reds predominate, especially from the Douro region, famous for Port. Duorum Douro Tons De Duorum 2013 (Code: 49634, $13.99) has Port-like dark color, ripeness, and intensity, though it’s not too heavy for that duck dish. Also look
for Duorum Colheita Douro 2013 (Code: 43930, $17.99), and Quinta Do Crasto Douro Red 2013 (Code: 49662, $16.99). Evidencia Red Dao 2014 (Code: 48995, $9.99) and Quinta da Aveleda Follies 2012 (Code: 44140, $13.99) are two good choices from outside the Douro.
Though less well known, white wines are also produced in the Douro. Among the best is Casa Ferreirinha Douro White Reserva Planalto 2014 (Code: 49371, $14.99), a good choice for seafood, salads and poultry. Many Portuguese whites are labeled Vinho Verde or “green” wine, which refers to the wines’ freshness. So, drink them as young as you can. Their lower alcohol (generally 9-11 percent) makes them good sippers for summer and for spicy hot dishes. Try Quinta Da Raza Vinho Verde Raza 2014 (Code: 49628, $12.99) or Casa Do Valle Grande Escolha Vinho Verde 2014 (Code: 49841, $14.99).