By Chesney Hearst, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Originally making Neapolitan-style gourmet pizzas from a mobile oven food truck and selling them in pop-up locations and around Rio de Janeiro, New York expatriate and Pizza Chef Sei Shiroma now has established his business, Ferro e Farinha (Iron and Flour), in a brick-and-mortar restaurant located in Rio’s Catete neighborhood.
“The inspiration at the start of Ferro e Farinha was neither to be a mobile oven nor a restaurant,” Shiroma told The Rio Times. “It was simply to focus on the craft and in every detail of making excellent pizzas.”
Shiroma, recently named one of The Rio Times’ 10 Most Interesting Gringos of 2014, arrived in Rio, fueled by his love of pizza and seeing a niche in the market, founded Ferro e Farinha a little over a year ago.
From the beginning, his passion shone through as he crafted speciality gourmet pizzas with Neapolitan-style dough and finished off with unique toppings that have included spicy honey, grana padano, zucchini, salt-cured eggplant, beets, watercress, orange balsamic vinaigrette lemon, and caramelized onions. Shiroma also bucked the Rio-style pizza trends by not shying away from pizza sauce and by going easy on the cheese.
Originally creating the mobile oven with the help of Brazilian industrial furnace engineers, Shiroma, once fired up and mobile, quickly began to make a name for himself and his pizzas around the city.
Ferro e Farinha began to pop up in locations that included a spot outside of the popular Aproador club CAVE and spots near various fairs and event openings. Each time the oven appeared, crowds gathered and the pizzas increasingly sold out to a growing devoted following.
“[The mobile oven] was a low-cost way to put into motion the idea of mobility, and bringing the show to different places,” said Shiroma. “It became very popular and had some hallmarks of a runaway success, like long lines and internet buzz.”
“But after much thought and introspection, I concluded that what I preferred, as both an eater and a cook, was to have a small restaurant. This would allow me the space and stability to experiment, evolve, and bring a dining experience to accompany the food.”
Establishing the restaurant also helped to give Shiroma a break from the daily wear and tear of life as a mobile vendor. “The one word I would use to sum up running a mobile operation: carrying,” said Shiroma.
“I think most people would be surprised to know how much prep work and hauling goes into a three-hour period of service. And I had the added work of having to split wood logs (with an axe!) for fuel for our oven.”
“And if we forgot to bring, let’s say, a ladle to put on sauce,” Shiroma who has been helped by his Brazilian wife throughout the entire process continued, “we’d be in the situation of having to use a little spoon from the corner boteco [bar] the whole night.”
More trials and tribulations would follow as Shiroma met with complications from both local police and uncooperative weather. There were multiple changes of location, rescheduled hours and at times services were terminated by authorities. “We exploited a grey area in the law concerning street food vendors: it’s ok until the police tell you to leave.”
“There were times we were shut down by the authorities with the incidents captured on camera and circulating on the internet. And if it wasn’t the law, it would be the rain. There’s a certain cachet to dining at a clandestine pop-up but there’s little appeal to eating in the rain.”
Opening the restaurant was not an entirely smooth process either. Shiroma met with the often criticized difficulties of doing business in Brazil, a country that is currently rated 120th out of 189 countries studied for Ease of doing business by the World Bank in their 2015 Doing Business report.
On top of that, Shiroma had to deal with the expectations of locals as to what his restaurant should be and the services it should provide.
“During the obra [work, construction], I would tell anyone that asked that despite it being a small space that we wouldn’t deliver. This was baffling to them,” said Shiroma.
“Fortunately, we create many more loyal customers than we do condemners. A few people have become loud and aggressive because we don’t do things in the way they expect that a pizza place should do things: like make deliveries, or use unrestrained amounts of cheese.”
However, now in operation for almost two months, it appears that fans of the restaurant, both locals and expats are increasing. Recently a fan-made video depicting a night at Ferro e Farinha, posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, garnered well over one hundred likes with commenters, who appeared to be mostly local Brazilians, praising the restaurant, recommending and tagging it to share with friends.
Shiroma, who has continually expressed deep gratitude to the people who have helped him along the way, said of the location of the new restaurant, “[…] I’m very happy to be in Catete. It’s an unassuming neighborhood that has an eclectic mix of residents, and dense amount of greenmarkets.”
“Being right by the metro makes it easier to be a destination restaurant, as a lot of our customers come from Botafogo and the beach neighborhoods (some even as far as Recreio). But every week, I see more newcomers who live in the neighborhood, who didn’t know about us from the street, but whose friend had an excellent meal the other night.”
“What do we hope to be in Catete?” said Shiroma in conclusion. “A great neighborhood restaurant.”
What: Ferro e Farinha
Where: Rua Andrade Pertence 42D, Catete, RJ
Hours of Operation: Wednesday through Sunday, 7PM to 11:30 PM (hours may be subject to change)
Website (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/FerroEFarinha