Lowell’s Portuguese Cuisine, Rich in History and Flavor
Each week, Manny Silva makes chourico and linguica sausages by hand to sell at his well-stocked Portuguese market in Lowell. Maria Cunha and Lurdes Furtado prepare Portuguese meals for their families, cooking the food they remember from their childhoods in the Azores and Madeira islands off the coast of Portugal. And brothers Manny and Michael Cavaleiro welcome guests to Cavaleiro’s, the Lowell restaurant that’s famous for some of the best Portuguese food in the Merrimack Valley. Need proof? Ask Billy Costa, host of NECN’s “TV Diner,” who featured Cavaleiro’s on his show, giving the restaurant his coveted “Gold Plate Award.” Silva, Cunha, Furtado and the Cavaleiros are all either natives of Portugal or children of natives. And they’re part of the culinary heritage that makes the Merrimack Valley, and Lowell in particular, a hot spot for Portuguese cuisine. From bacalhau and caldo verde to arroz doce and filhoses — Portuguese for codfish, kale soup, sweet rice and fried dough, respectively — the food is delicious.
But why cook caldo verde, when opening a can of Campbell’s is easier? That’s simple, say Cunha and Furtado. “It’s the food I grew up with, and it’s more precious and meaningful to me the older I get,” says Cunha, a resident of Lowell. Furtado, who lives in Tewksbury, feels “happy” cooking Portuguese meals. “It makes me remember when I was a kid,” she says, and cooking these foods passes on the tradition to her grandchildren.
A Long History in the Valley
The Portuguese have been part of the Merrimack Valley’s ethnic patchwork for more than 100 years. The first wave of immigrants arrived from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, mainly from the Azores and Madeira islands, in pursuit of a better life. They worked in the textile mills of Lowell and, to a lesser extent, Lawrence. In Lowell, they settled just south of downtown in the Back Central neighborhood, which remains heavily Portuguese today, home to both recent Portuguese immigrants and the descendents of earlier arrivals. Cunha and Furtado were in the second wave of immigrants that arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. Cunha, then 12, arrived from the Azores in 1967 with her brothers and parents, who wanted a better education for their children.
Her parents found work in the mills, and an apartment in Back Central, where she grew up. Cunha graduated from Regis College in Weston, worked for former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, and is now program director at the Out of School Youth Development Center at Middlesex Community College’s Lowell Campus. Furtado, 22 when she came from the Madeira islands in 1970, lived with a brother in Watertown and worked in a Cambridge factory. She settled in Somerville when she married her husband, Cesar, in 1973. They moved to Tewksbury in 1996 with their son, David.
Home Cooking, Portuguese-Style
Cunha and Furtado are excellent home cooks who make classic dishes for their families. Cunha’s late mother, Luisa Espinola, inspired her. “She was an incredible cook who baked her own bread,” Cunha says. Cunha makes sopa de carne (soup with meat), alcatra (meat roasted in a clay pot with onions, wine and garlic) and bacalhau cozido (boiled codfish and vegetables). Furtado’s repertoire includes carne vinho e alhos — cubed pork roast marinated in wine, vinegar and herbs, then simmered and finally fried until crisp. Bread cubes are fried in the same pot, absorbing the meat’s tasty juices.
“It’s popular at Christmas and delicious,” says Sonia Furtado, of Lowell, who is herself of Portuguese decent as well as married to Lurdes Furtado’s son, David. Sonia loves carne d’espeto — skewered sirloin tips seasoned with sea salt, bay leaves and garlic powder, then grilled over charcoal and wrapped in a Portuguese roll.“They’re delicious, very popular at festivals,” she says.
Portuguese festivals in Lowell celebrate saints’ days and other religious holidays. They’re perfect places to sink your teeth into Portuguese food. “You’ll find sweet bread (massa sovada) and fried dough (filhoses),” says Cunha, whose mother slept on a cot during festivals at Lowell’s Holy Ghost Park to ensure that the food didn’t run out.
Manny and Elizabeth Silva greet customers with warm smiles at their store, Silva’s Mini Market, on Perry Street. Proprietors for 25 years, they have all the ingredients needed to make traditional Portuguese meals. The store is stocked with bread from the Lowell Portuguese Bakery, salt cod, smelts, octopus, cheese from the island of St. Jorge in the Azores, dried beans and corn, grapes for fall winemaking, quince marmalade, canned sardines and tuna, Portuguese wines and Manny’s handmade sausages. “I make them Azorean-style,” he says. Each Saturday he deep-fries pork rinds to make torresmos, a traditional treat. They also sell potatoes in 50-pound bags.“The Portuguese love their bread and potatoes,” says Elizabeth, whose family is Azorean.
Portuguese bread is chewy and satisfying. The Lowell Portuguese Bakery produces hundreds of loaves each day, including home-style and cornbread, papo secos rolls and an array of pastries, both Portuguese and American.“We make 100 dozen papo secos a day,” says Ben Gomes, son of the bakery’s owner, Milson Gomes. The bakery delivers fresh bread daily to local markets, Portuguese civic clubs and Lowell restaurants. At Christmas and Easter, Portuguese sweet bread is a best seller.
Seafood is essential to Portuguese cuisine, and every Wednesday through Saturday, Antonio Alves of Lowell sells fresh fish, clams, octopus and salt cod from his refrigerated truck on Central Street. “My fish is fresh off the boat,” Alves says as he weighs a tuna steak on a hanging scale. He was at the Boston Fish Pier at 4 a.m. to stock up for the day. What he sells varies, but he always has octopus and salt cod, plus lobsters and crabs on Saturdays — and there is always a steady stream of customers.
Dining Out, Portuguese-Style
The Cavaleiro brothers, who are natives of Lowell, grew up eating great Portuguese food at the restaurant their parents, Domingos and Rosa Cavaleiro, both from mainland Portugal, operated in the city. “We’re carrying on a family tradition,” says Manny, who opened Cavaleiro’s Restaurant on Lawrence Street with Michael seven years ago. The 120-seat restaurant features dishes such as lagareiro-style codfish, grilled with garlic and olive oil, and Portuguese steak, pan-fried and topped with a fried egg. A sampler appetizer platter includes codfish cakes, breaded shrimp and linguica. “We have the best codfish in the city, and we’re the only restaurant to offer steak-on-a-stone, an 8-ounce filet mignon cooked to your liking at the table on a sizzling stone,” Manny says. The menu lists American favorites, too, and Manny and Michael gladly prepare customer requests.
The restaurant remains a family affair, with Mama Rosa often helping in the kitchen, and Michael’s wife, Alessandra, also pitching in. Their 3-year-old daughter, Mikayla, is often hanging out, too. So are local politicians, who’ve made Cavaleiro’s their Saturday morning spot for coffee and conversation. “They talk politics, and we make them what they want for breakfast,” says Manny.
Antonio Alves, fish vendor
(978) 815-9658 (cell)
573 Lawrence Street l Lowell
Lowell Portuguese Bakery
930 Gorham Street l Lowell
40 Perry Street l Lowell