Pastéis de nata or Portuguese tarts (you know the ones – flaky pastry and baked custard) are a Melbourne cafe staple, but Ruben Bertolo and Nelson Coutinho think we’re missing out on the real deal. Together they’re opening a Casa Nata, a new cafe dedicated to coffee and authentic pastéis de nata, in a heritage-listed Thornbury building.
While neither comes from a baking background – Bertolo runs a painting business and Coutinho has a repair shop – both are of Portuguese descent and have been eating the tarts their entire lives.
“So we thought ‘Why don’t we learn how to make these things,’” says Bertolo.
In 2017 the duo made a trip to Portugal, where traditional Portuguese pastry chefs taught them tart-making techniques. The success of a pop-up at the Queen Victoria Market convinced them to open a permanent store.
“There are some characteristics that you have to get right, or you can’t just name it a Portuguese tart,” says Bertolo. “The pastry has to be golden and crunchy, you have to see the layers all the way around the side of the tart, and the custard has to be shiny and have black spots. These black spots can’t be done with a torch; they have to be caramelised in an oven.”
Trying to balance the textures is the most difficult part of the cooking process. Bertolo explains that a window of as little as 10 seconds can be the making or breaking of a tart.
“The hardest part is that you’re trying to cook something that has to become really crunchy on the outside but gooey and silky and soft on the inside,” he says.
The Thornbury fit-out has subtle Portuguese influences, such as marble accents and traditional tin-glazed Azulejo ceramic tiles, alongside exposed brick walls, high ceilings and decorative cornices.
A little theatre will be added to the cafe experience at the open glass-box kitchen, where customers can watch the tart-making process from when the pastry is cut until it leaves the oven.
“It’s all hand-made; we make absolutely everything from scratch,” says Coutinho. “We want to have a little espresso bar up next to the glass so you can drink your coffee and watch us making [the tarts].”
Bertolo and Coutinho are waiting for the arrival of an oven from Portugal, but aim to open by late November or early December.