A very famous fado says: “Uma casa Portuguesa com certeza” (a Portuguese house, no doubt) and when you enter in Zé dos Cornos you may think that this phrase was meant for them.
Let’s put a family, add traditional Portuguese dishes, join a nice handful of joy, a pinch of irony, season with the typical welcome of the beautiful Minho region, and here you have Zé dos Cornos, a traditional place from four generations.
To try to reconstruct the long history of this family and the place, we ask Marco for help. João Marco Ferreira to be precise. But not to confuse him with his father, João Ferreira, for everyone he is Marco, the youngest of this family.
Marco, through memories also linked to conversations with his grandmother, helps us retrace the history of the Ferreira family and Zé dos cornos. But his father João can’t resist, and from time to time he leaves the counter to join Marco’s story and also tell some of his details and memories, giving rise to an extraordinary father-son duet that immediately introduces us to the atmosphere of this place, a place where you can breathe a family feeling.
But let’s try to go in order and, with some steps back in the time, let’s try to retrace this story.
Originally this place was not a restaurant but a carvoeria, that is a charcoal shop, a place that sold coal, oil, and everything that could be used to light and heat the houses. At the time, there was no electricity in the city. This was a job that normally did in Lisbon the Galicians, who, given the geographical proximity, often worked in Portugal. And this place belonged to Celia Cabo, and was managed by two Galician sisters.
Domingos João Ferreira, João’s grandfather and Marco’s great-grandfather, originally from Ponte de Lima in the beautiful Minho region, after his military service decides to buy this place and therefore continue with the tradition of coal.
The shop served the entire Mouraria area and beyond.
As in a perfect family saga, the family shop passes to his son José, for all Zé, who arrives here at the age of 13 and who, later, begins to manage it together with his wife Maria.
And here is the first evolution of the place: together with the charcoal shop, Maria begins to prepare some dishes in a small space next to it. Simple things, such as could be found in this kind of place. The family lived and worked here.
The kitchen, Marco explains to me, was located where today there is a small bathroom and, where the kitchen currently is, there was a room with a large table, and behind this room, the family house with a small courtyard. A typical Portuguese house.
And here João intervenes to tell us that as a kid he practically had to go through the shop entrance to go home.
The charcoal shop of Zé is transformed, thanks to Maria’s dishes, into the Casa de pasto (a tavern) of Zé Ferreira. But people kept connecting Zé to his work as a charcoal burner, and it becomes Zé Carvoeiro – Zé Coalman.
But how did we get to the name of Zé dos cornos (Zé of the horns) then? I ask Marco.
And he explains to me that in reality it all begins on the day when Zé, whose portrait dominates the entrance of the restaurant, comes home with a pair of horns, the ones to hang on the walls as a hunting trophy and which still dominate today on the head of his portrait. From there, people began to call it Zé dos cornos. Marco also shows us a sticker, one of the first made for the restaurant, where in fact we see Zé with these horns.
And so I joke with Marco, because I knew a different version, namely that this nickname came from the fame of womanizer who accompanied his grandfather. And Marco and João laughed. And they tell me that the name does not come from there, but that this is not exactly an urban legend because Zé really was a Don Giovanni.
João tells me that when there was a woman at the restaurant, she didn’t get rid of his father so easily. And he says it has always been like this, until the end. Unfortunately, Mr. Zé cannot be here to disprove as he passed away in 2013 after a fulminant liver disease.
And today to hold the restaurant, there are João and his wife Carmelinda, for all Minda. Another generation, the third, another story.
In the meantime, the place hasn’t changed a lot, also because Mr. Zé, João tells us, didn’t like big transformations, he was very conservative, and convincing him to modernize the place was not easy. For example, the steel counter of the restaurant has been there for at least 40 years and it was already 32 years ago that this tavern took on its current appearance, except for some minor renovations.
The great innovation of this place was the great embers that were offered to them and that allow to the tavern to prepare its specialties: grilled dishes, meat and fish cooked on the grill. So delicious!
There are other family members in the kitchen, most notably Minda’s sister Maria. And it was thanks to Maria, albeit indirectly, that Minda and João met.
And then Marco explains to us that Minda worked in Braga and had arrived in Lisbon to help her sister Maria after her childbirth.
Maria lived not far from the restaurant and Minda therefore passed in front of the tavern door. And when João saw Minda … “He never more gave up on me!” Minda intervenes. “Of course I wasn’t expecting him, I had another boyfriend in Braga!” she continues, amid general laughter.
Minda is like this, the soul of this place, a woman of great spirit and sympathy.
And so in the end Minda and João got married, 28 years ago. And now they live together, they work together… “I can’t take it anymore” she says laughing. But theirs is a really beautiful union.
Maria also tells us that always staying together in the family is not always easy, sometimes at work there may be small tensions, but then affection always wins over everything and they forget and very quickly everything is ok.
And in the last years, Marco, the son of Minda and João, the fourth generation of this extraordinary family, has also been working in the tavern.
Marco says that he had started working in another field, but that after his study he finally decided to join the family.
As he tells us, it’s hard work, mostly because of the working time, but it’s their place, their family and what they do best.
This tavern keeps intact the spirit of the typical Portuguese “tascas”, with large tables and wooden stools. And the tradition of this place has always been to combine complete strangers at the same table, a truly impeccable way to find yourself having lunch and making new friends.
Marco tells us that when, for example, people of the same nationality arrived, he joined them at the same table to make them feel more at ease. And he has, in this way, also lit the spark between some people. He tells us, for example, that years ago he had seated at the same table an Italian and a Brazilian who had ended up chatting for a long time and they had continued long after that lunch at Zé dos cornos. Finally they got married and even wanted to organize the wedding dinner there in the tavern, where their love was born.
There are many stories to tell, Marco tells us. Zé dos cornos remains an authentic place despite the great publicity it has received over the years and which has attracted many tourists. An advertisement not sought, Marco tells us, but happened, with old customers who recommended the place to others, journalists who showed up at the door, they also talked about them on Dutch TV. And many famous people have passed and still pass by. “But for us, famous or not, it makes no difference,” says Marco, because anyone who arrives is welcomed in the same way.
Definitely a place out of the ordinary, where tourists and regular customers have met in the last years, where hospitality reigns supreme and where you can still enjoy a cup of red green vinho. A Minho specialty that is very rare to find outside that region, because it is produced only for local customers. But like a good Minho family, the Ferreira da Zé dos cornos have it.
One more reason to visit this place and immerse yourself in a familiar, fun, relaxed atmosphere while enjoying a plate of meat or grilled cod, sipping a glass of wine, “red green” of course.
Zé dos cornos is in Beco dos Surradores 5.