Open since early 2012, for just over a year, Maria Escaleira is run by a husband-and-wife-team – a trans-Atlantic duo comprising Brazilian Vanessa Medrado Wica front of house, with her husband, the Polish chef Andrzej Wica, backstage in the kitchen.
The couple’s speciality is moderately priced Polish classics – a taste of home for expat Poles and a novelty for most others, since save for stroganoff, a paulistano staple hailing from Russia originally, Eastern and Central European cuisine is thin on the ground in São Paulo.
Maria Escaleira’s location, just like its menu, is homely and unpretentious: just two storeys of sparsely decorated rooms connected by an ageing wooden staircase. With just three or four tables per room, big groups can take one over and raise the roof should the spirit move them, while couples may find themselves dining in discreet murmurs alongside just one or two other couples.
Wica, a chef with 15 years’ experience under his belt, is returning to his roots and cooking Polish food for the first time professionally. It took him about a year, and a lot of creativity, to source the right Brazilian ingredients to create his menu.
With one of the only imported Polish products in Brazil being vodka – try Maria Escaleira’s exceedingly smooth Zubrowka (na zdorovie!) – local Polenghi cream cheese stands in for sour cream, a Polish basic. It’s used in a garlicky dip alongside caramelised red onion jelly, with delicious deep-fried salty-sweet langos breads (R$16.90); and it’s stuffed inside the pierogi (R$29.50) – a satisfying mix of potato and cheese in ravioli-style parcels, with or without crispy bacon bits on top.
Other menu highlights include the bigos (R$30.50), a robust, intensely flavoured stew with pork meat, which Wica cooks at a low temperature with wine for at least two days, adding smoked sausage, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and sauerkraut.
Less satisfying were the placki ziemniaczane (R$14.50) – overly greasy flat potato pancakes with a creamy garlic dip – but the barszcz (beetroot soup, R$16.90), more than made up for it with its dark red, velvety smoothness. The epitomy of Maria Escaleira’s comfort food, it’s warm, delicious and reasonably priced. Winter is coming? We say bring it on…