Koo Zee Doo: Love at First Bite

Portuguese cooking gets soulful in Northern Liberties

AS A COLLEGE student, Carla Gonçalves grew weary of American boys. When she brought them to her Portuguese family’s Sunday dinners, they were intimidated by the piles of boiled meats and sardines her clan relishes. She expected no more from David Gilberg, a fellow Haverford student from New York State whose family meals were often cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwiches. But after a few Sunday suppers at which Gilberg appreciatively devoured the whole spectrum of Portuguese fare, the couple’s fate was sealed.

Now married, they’ve opened Koo Zee Doo in Northern Liberties. Gilberg handles the savory side of the menu, making many of the dishes he spent years learning at the elbow of his mother-in-law. He says pork with clams and fried potatoes was the first dish he perfected. His practice shows: The tender hunks of pork shoulder are marinated in a spicy fermented red pepper paste before being braised in wine and broth, combined with cockles, and served with the twice-fried spuds. Like all platters at Koo Zee Doo, the $24 dish is served up family-style and feeds two generously.

Not that every recipe is exactly like Mom makes. Gilberg says vegetarian food is virtually nonexistent in Portuguese cuisine. So he’s tweaked certain dishes, like the rissois, pastry turnovers that typically cradle shrimp, and instead stuffs them with nontraditional fillings like mushroom and sweet potato. In their research, the couple discovered a dish from the Azores, the islands off Portugal’s mainland, called milho frito. Gilberg mixes finely milled corn flour with vegetable stock, spices, onion and garlic, forms it into cubes, and fries them before pairing them with an assortment of sautéed seasonal vegetables for a hearty vegetarian entrée that’s just as flavorful as its meaty counterparts.

Gonçalves makes all the breads and pastries, a craft she learned from her mother. Local carboholics still talk about the breads and biscuits she made when she and Gilberg cooked at the Ugly American in Pennsport. Here, the bread basket holds a dense corn-based roll and a nutty wheat roll, both so good that you’ll ask for more. Portuguese sweets are typically rich and custardy, but Gonçalves’s menu mixes in her own inspired creations. The coconut tart is creamy and decadent and topped with a fig stuffed with chestnut paste and covered in chocolate. Her chocolate salami, a mixture of bittersweet chocolate, port and figs, tastes like a grown-up candy bar.

This isn’t the future her parents imagined when, as immigrants, they worked long hours at a Willow Grove pizza shop to send their daughter to Haverford. But Gonçalves says their apprehension has turned to pride since they’ve seen the restaurant and tasted their son-in-law’s take on the family fare. Now the whole city can share in the delicious -Sunday-dinner ritual that brought this couple together.