Restaurateur Zazá Pierek’s Go-to Dinner Party Dish

Published on 4 minutes read
Words by Veronica Dobal, Imagery by Zazá Pierek and Selmy Yassuda
"My very favourite is cured salmon in a passionfruit and ginger sauce, served with curried couscous. I love it! It's very special, we cure it in beetroot juice and the result is amazing. But I'm proud of our menu; it’s a balance of old favourites, which I call roots, with new trends and creations."

Zazá Bistro is not just any Rio de Janeiro restaurant. In the 23 years since Isabela ‘Zazá’ Pierek founded her namesake beach-side spot — it’s located just a minute from Ipanema’s Posto 9 — she has created a firm favourite both for locals and for those passing through. The fare is Brazilian, inflected with ideas picked up on her travels around the world, from Thailand and Morocco, and sourced sustainably through a host of trusted suppliers. Like most of Rio de Janiero’s tempo, planning is inspired by the beach. She figured people would like to have somewhere interesting to go after an afternoon there — so upstairs, you’ll find pocket shows, poetry readings, and on an early Sunday evening, philosophy talks. Her plan worked beautifully: it’s an eclectic roster that has the house full during an hour when most restaurants close altogether.

Born in Rio de Janiero but raised in São Paulo, Zazá is a mix of the best of those two iconic cities. Serious, hard working and cosmopolitan as "paulistas", but also the perfect girl from Ipanema. Tall and tanned and full of unconventional ideas, that she loves sharing in a husky voice. We sat down with her to hear some of them — not least, her go-to dinner party recipe, a mouth-watering combination of tuna in smashed potatoes with wasabi and beetroot pearls.

What was the concept behind Zazá Bistro Tropical?

My husband Cello Camolese and I went to Thailand for our honeymoon, and we fell in love with its food and  the way they served it: in small portions, on low tables. When we came back we decided that we wanted to do a restaurant of South Asian cuisine, but with a Brazilian touch — tapioca and local fish. We found this lovely house in an Ipanema corner and decorated it with memorabilia from our travels in Turkey, Morocco, South Asia and also with some Brazilian popular art. Cosy and colourful. We were so happy with the menu we had developed, but the beginning was not always easy. We were the first to present this fusion to Rio, and people were a bit suspicious. We had to conquer them! We had very good reviews and great word of mouth — and our Sunday after-beach gatherings helped a lot, too.

The place has just been through something of a change, hasn’t it?

Changes are always good. We had to shut for a year during the pandemic, and we decided on a clean visual for our comeback. I like to say we went from Barroccan Frida Kahlo to Yemanja, Saint of the Seas in Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. We have light wood everywhere now, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a skylight on the outside veranda — natural light everywhere.

The food is more Brazilian too: our best-seller is Moqueca Capixaba, fish slowly cooked in onion and peppers and coconut milk — but different from the original, from Bahia, as we don’t add dende oil, it can be a bit heavy. We also do an Amazonian fish, Pirarucu, from a sustainable farm, which comes covered in Brazil nuts, sourced from a verified source. Being sustainable is part of who we are. We buy organic food from small producers. We recycle everything.

What is your favourite dish in the bistro?

My very favourite is cured salmon in a passionfruit and ginger sauce, served with curried couscous. I love it! It's very special, we cure it in beetroot juice and the result is amazing. But I'm proud of our menu; it’s a balance of old favourites, which I call roots, with new trends and creations.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Instagram (@instagram)

Tell me about your home.

Home is a beautiful house in São Conrado, not very far from the restaurant in Ipanema. It is designed by Zanine Caldas, an architect known for his use of indigenous wood. I live with Cello, my husband, and our eldest son, Francisco, who works in the financial market. Our daughter Flora is living in New York, studying acting in the Lee Strasberg Studio. We are surrounded by green and have lots of space — enough for a pool and my herb garden.

Sounds like the perfect place for entertaining.

We both love having people around. But always in the afternoon — I'm a day person, and prefer to be in bed by midnight, musing about the party. When we entertain a large group I do classics from my menu — mini salmon tartare on toast, lamb meatballs, crudités, and wasabi mousse with chips of varied roots like manioc, parsnip, sweet potatoes. What I call affectionate food. Two of my favourite cocktails are a must: a traditional Cosmopolitan and our creation, Spicy Berries Margarita.

If we’re having a small group of friends I might do the cooking myself. My specialty is Thai-inspired beef with fresh cucumber and mangoes from the garden. That's what I cook for my children on the weekends. During the week we eat Brazilian style: rice and beans, lots of vegetables and salads.

We always have brown rice. I learned with my mother. When I was growing up, my mother was rather strict. Soft drinks were banned, we drank fresh fruit juice. Her specialty was homemade baked beans. My grandfather was Austrian, but moved to Pernambuco, in the north-east of Brazil. There he met my grandmother. From them we inherited the habit of having a banana along with the food. Yes, beans and banana in the same plate.

Zazá’s go-to dinner party dish: Tuna in smashed potatoes, with wasabi and beetroot pearls

Makes four portions.

  • 100g of fresh tuna, divided into four
  • Nan pla (fish sauce) to taste
  • 500g of potatoes, peeled and cut into small squares
  • 80ml of fresh cream
  • 50g of unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp of powdered wasabi
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 90g de sago pearls
  • 1 small beetroot
  • 300ml of water
  • 100g of kale, leafs only, very thinly sliced
  • 400 oz frying oil

Begin with the beetroot pearls, they need at least two hours.

Beetroot Pearls

Cook the sago in three times its amount of water at a low temperature, until they turn see-through. Drain and set aside.

While the sago is cooking, beat the beetroot in a mixer with 300ml of water. Strain and season. Add the sago to the beetroot water. Leave for at least two hours before serving.


Season the tuna with fish sauce, to taste. Heat a non-stick frying pan and seal the tuna briefly, on all sides.

Smashed Potatoes

Bring the potatoes to boil for approximately 30 minutes, until soft.

When they’re almost done, heat the cream and the butter. Drain the potatoes and pass them, still warm,  through a thin sieve directly onto the mix of cream and butter, also kept warm. Add the wasabi and mix thoroughly, until the mix is pale green. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Crunchy Kale

Heat the oil to 180°C. Fry the kale, a little at a time. Be careful not to overdo it! Dry the excess oil on a kitchen towel.

Fill your plate, and bom apetite!

Share this article

email whatsapp

Stories you might like

All stories
Beyond Bossa

Beyond Bossa

Published on
Summer Recipes by Allegra Antinori

Summer Recipes by Allegra Antinori

Published on
A Guide to a Tinned Fish Dinner Party

A Guide to a Tinned Fish Dinner Party

Published on
All stories