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São Paulo’s High-Voltage Social Scene

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Thanks to D.O.M.’s success and that of the other restaurants it has influenced, such as the more casual Sabuji, fine dining in São Paulo isn’t just Italian or sushi anymore. Not that the sushi here is merely average. The offerings at Kosushi and Jun Sakamoto, a quiet, minimalist-modern temple where your raw tuna might come in iced shiso-flavored consommé with a ring of foie gras, can go up against anything you’d find in Tokyo or L.A. And the Italian cuisine at Gero, and at its mother restaurant, Fasano, is impeccably prepared. The Mercado Municipal, in the city’s center, is another place where this diversity is clear: under the speckled light that filters through fin-de-siècle stained-glass are two stories of Italian-imports stalls; beer gardens supplied with Belgium’s best; Portuguese olive-oil and salt-cod vendors; and Amazonian fruit and vegetable stands with generous sampling policies. The crowd noise is deafening and the colors frenzied, making it an easy—and tempting—place to get lost.

São Paulo’s Centro—the urban jumble of Beaux-Arts and 1920’s buildings and modern glass skyscrapers surrounding the Mercado Municipal—has been undergoing a revitalization of its own. Of course, even with last year’s rash of bus torchings fading from memory, São Paulo is still known, deservedly, for its crime. The wholesale-shopping area along Rua 25 de Março, a hilly hive with stores of Carnival gear, animal hides, Havaianas flip-flops, and costume jewelry, is no farther from the Mercado than you could toss a mango, and it can be a little rough. (A few years ago, as I giddily emerged from it, my arms weighed down with glitzy fake-gold bangles and cuffs, my companion’s tote bag was sliced through with a box cutter.) But the global barometer of neighborhood trendification is twitching: nightclubs have started rolling in. One of the most talked-about on this visit is Royal Club, a newly opened disco-lounge fashioned out of a fancy office-tower restaurant called Paddock. Its owner, 40-year-old events producer Cacá Ribeiro, had his choice of sizable spaces all over town, but Centro was the only area he would consider. "It’s so chic here with all these old buildings," he told me on a packed Friday night as the hip-hop blared and the thick crowd of blowouts and designer jeans preened and chatted through the smoke and the noise on their next-generation cell phones. "We are proud of this area," he said and listed some of the other new developments that made him such a believer: the cultural center of the Banco do Brasil, opened in 2001 to house theater and dance; the concert hall Sala São Paulo, reopened in 1999 for the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; and the Pinacoteca do Estado, or national gallery, an important nexus of the country’s art.

Reorganized in 1998 by former director Emanuel Araujo, Pinacoteca is a beautiful salmon-colored brick building from the turn of the last century; it was recently restored by architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who won a Mies van der Rohe Prize in 2000 for his efforts. Constructed to take full advantage of São Paulo’s seemingly eternal springtime weather, it’s a sunny place to see Brazilian art from the 19th century to the present. The expansive collection of São Paulo artists includes Antonio Ferrigno, an Italian immigrant from the early 20th century who painted scenes of agricultural life, and Evandro Carlos Jardim, an etcher with a passion for cityscapes who is today a professor emeritus at the University of São Paulo.

After moving on from the Pinacoteca a few years ago, Araujo, who is also a sculptor, developed a riskier and more soulful project: the Museu Afrobrasil, one of the most provocative museums I’ve visited. Opened just two years ago in Parque Ibirapuera, Oscar Niemeyer’s complex of High Modernist masterpieces, it lies at the end of a long, low pergola that rings with the distorted acoustics of skateboarding teenagers. A joyous detonation of ocher, cerulean, and jade-green walls, the museum displays more than a century’s worth of art, much of it from Araujo’s own collection. Afro-Brazilian here is more a state of mind, or an orientation, than a hard-and-fast definition: historical, as in the Bahian ritual costumes of candomblé deity Babá Egum; thematic, as in pieces by conceptualist star Nelson Leirmer, who toys with Brazilian identity (skateboards with monkey motifs); or biographical, as in the case of outsider artist Walter Firmo, who first became known for his mixed-media sculpture in the 1970’s. In the museum’s three-story space, slave-ship paraphernalia is displayed next to graffiti art, which is next to documentary photos of Amazonian tribes. Tour groups, mostly made up of working-class, black Brazilians, circulate frequently, thanks to an exchange program with adult-education centers in the suburbs.

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