It was an impromptu stroll around the neighborhood that led me to the culinary safe haven of Ritalinos, an unassuming restaurant just around the corner of my apartment, one that was left undiscovered for an unreasonable amount of time. It was love at first sight, to be honest: from the cozy interior design to the limited daily menu to the inexplicably courteous service, price-quality it’s head and shoulders above the competition. Long may it run.
The Portuguese tasca (a traditional restaurant with sheets of paper for table cloths upon which the menu is written and then glued to the outer window) is an unsung hero of ours. There’s something inherently worthwhile and lovely in the rapid pace, the relative good quality food and no-nonsense serving that make up so much of the quintessential Portuguese restaurant experience in the lower price range. Our main criticisms however are that places don’t do enough to distinguish themselves from the pack, offering a myriad of about 10 to 12 dishes each instead of focusing on less than a handful of house specialties that would allow them to stand out among the other neighboring restaurants.
That, and the food can sometimes be a bit too heavy (a gut-bursting feijoada), a bit too predictable (a grilled fish, lovely as it is, doesn’t hold any surprises for us anymore) and a bit too unsophisticated (not that we don’t like the occasional palate-scraping red wine but overcooked mushy white rice and raw, roughly chopped onions that never fail to squeeze out a tear in a mixed salad is where we really draw the line). Leave it then to Ritalinos to step up to the plate and raise the bar that a lot of Portuguese restaurants in Lisbon should consider a template, a guideline and an example for how it should be done.
The concept of Ritalinos is so simple, it’s barely a concept: they only open for lunch (in the morning and afternoon until early evening it’s a pastelaria where you can pop in for a coffee, the odd piece of toast or if that’s your vibe, a pick-me-up/punch-me-in-the-groin shot of aguardente), they have a number of more or less fixed, slightly more expensive dishes consisting of meat and fish (on Monday, it’s only bacalhau because the market doesn’t have any fresh fish) and two daily dishes, normally one meat and one fish. Their market-dependent menu is so much more than just an economically sound decision, as it’s a traditional Portuguese restaurant in a traditional Portuguese neighborhood: it is literally the other side of the occidental restaurant menu disease of too many choices, adjusted diets and crowd-pleasing but almost always gastronomically abhorrent compromises.
No, “Ritalinos” definitely isn’t riding an instagramable wave of hipsters or picturesque food nor do its understated, traditional Portuguese dishes involve any reductions, emulsions or Sweet Baby Jesus help us all, unnecessary foams leaving your mouth full of failed ambitions and aftertastes drowning in their own pretentiousness. “Ritalinos” steers safely away from that both in style and in price (one of their two dishes of the day will only set you back 7,5€), but especially in some of their signature desserts is where they truly separate themselves from the pack. Sure, the soups may be nothing too earth-shattering, but that should leave us with ample time and space to talk about the main dishes and desserts.
So, let’s talk specifics, beautiful, sweet, delicious, generous, melt in your mouth specifics. First of all, Ritalinos knows their Portuguese cuisine and rarely serves anything else (except for the odd vegetarian dish): their unadorned Bacalhau à Brás was the first dish I ever tasted there and it was love at first bite. Creamy with egg yolk, the pleasantly salty, savory codfish flavor permeating every mouthful, the slight background potato crunch: this is exemplary Portuguese food, done right, done to absolute perfection.
Or what to make of their perfectly cooked filet mignon – not necessarily my favorite cut of meat as it’s a rather flavorless part that mostly sits in the back of the animal watching the legs and tender, juicy parts do all of the honest labor – that was cooked on the griddle to a succulent, slightly nutty piece of meat permeated, perfumed, marinated with bay and garlic. And don’t get me started on their original take on an alheira, here flavored with bacalhau and served with perfectly cooked, tender, succulent sprouting greens.
And then we haven’t even started tackling the lamb stew, the wonderful braised rabbit with rabbit offal rice (such a clever idea) or their superb, expertly grilled fish. Seriously, Portuguese food doesn’t come anywhere as good for that price as it does here. And that’s not even taking into consideration the incredibly attentive owner Luis, always greeting you with a warm welcome and who seems like an octopus with an arm on every table. He’ll ask you whether you’ll want a sweet or dry wine. He’ll think about wine in combination with the dish you just ordered. He’ll give you extra if you ask for it. He’ll give you something to try because he lives and breathes this. His blood is surely made up of 50% olive oil and 50% red wine. There is no two ways about it: he was born for this and he won’t make you leave his place until you feel that too.
It’s in the details: whether it’s the plate of olive oil with the black pool of balsamic vinegar in the middle you’ll get served together with your bread or that lovely final glass of a sweet wine on the house or the magical gratings of lime zest scattered across your perfectly ripe pineapple or mango, Ritalinos is all about generosity because Luis knows damn well that if you live to give and share, you’re gonna get it back tenfold and judging by how crowded this place can get around lunchtime peak, you’d be a damn fool to argue with him. For that matter, you’d be a damn fool to argue with him about food.
And we haven’t even gotten into dessert yet, but we’ll try to squeeze it into one stanza here for you. Basil-infused, creamy panna cotta that is the best I have EVER had anywhere in the history of the universe, all the black holes and all of the other solar galaxies I have been part of, am part of and will be part of into the history of eternity. The passion fruit crème brulée with the sugar top that is a 10 on the Richter scale. The pleasantly acidic passion fruit mousse. The different types of apples cooked and served with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. And so on.
From the Portuguese interior with blue azulejos and the bottles of wine on the wall to the back of the glass covered kitchen to the family atmosphere and the traditional recipes from his mother that Luis recycles to subtle modernization to the sophisticated, varied but unpretentious colorful mixed salad to the excellent price-quality relationship (you’ll likely not spend more than 15 to 20€ a head unless you were unreasonably reckless): there are a lot of things to love about this place and a lot, a lot of good reasons to go there. “Ritalinos” is simply put, just one of those places that embodies the food and the type of restaurant that Lisbom is all about.