“That’s Italian!” Sure, the food at Nuovo in Worcester on Shrewsbury Street is the furthest thing from the Ragu commercial those words may evoke. But it’s hard to look at the restaurant’s deep and appealing Italian menu and not think of that as a compliment. Then, as your eyes begin to focus to decide what to order you come to the “caldi primi” (hot first courses). And nestled in the middle is … “Albanian Appetizer” (oven braised liver, garlic, feta cheese, hot peppers). Huh? The dish sounds fantastic but what is it doing here? And come to think of it the Nuovo Antipasto (yogurt sauce, beefsteak tomatoes, olives, hot roasted peppers, feta cheese, white beans, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs and crostini) sounds great but feels Albanian too. Yet nothing else does. What gives?
Alex Gjonca gives.
Turns out, I’m like many new customers who wonder why that one Albanian dish is on the menu. But while the dish is a surprise find, the fact that an Albanian couple, Alex and his wife and partner Loreta, are the team behind Nuovo should not be all that surprising.
Albanian restaurants may not be common in these parts, but Albanians are world travelers and their country is surrounded by and draws influences from countries with long culinary histories, including Italy. That Alex and Loreta decided to open an Italian restaurant in 2011, however, goes beyond culinary geography. Aside from Turkish food, there is no other cuisine Alex loves to eat as much as Italian. In the years after immigrating to Worcester from Albania in the early 1990s and raising his family here, Alex cooked in Italian restaurants. He speaks Italian and cooked in one of the best restaurants in Rome.
And it was certainly not surprising to hear Alex and Loreta talk the way so many Italians do about their restaurant as a “home” and customers as “family.” In working with and talking to not just Italian chefs and restaurateurs but leaders across industries, I would need more than my fingers and toes to count the number of people who said they wanted their business to make people feel welcome. Most of them mean it too.
But few have made me feel it so immediately as Alex and Loreta. Because what happened shortly after we sat down to talk was surprising.
It was 2:30pm on a Friday. The restaurant would not open for 90 minutes and is not open for lunch but the front door was open and a couple walked in. A power outage had closed several places down the street and they had nowhere to eat.
I have been in this situation before during interviews. I catch chefs in their down time or on the day that they are closed but the door is open and someone walks in. The chef or staff politely tells them they are closed. Not Alex and Loreta.
“Sorry no, I don’t have any servers,” she says. “But … I’ll see if I can serve you. Let me see if the kitchen has anything ready.” She heads to the back where Alex and his staff are prepping for that evening. And I watch as Alex looks around and thinks but realizes that it is just too early. No fairy tale ending for that couple. But in that little moment I know beyond words and without eating a bite that Alex and Loreta really mean it when they talk about welcoming people.
Si me shtëpinë tuaj is how Albanians say it. Just like your home – even if that home is serving food from a neighboring nation.
“Everybody loves the way we approach the customers,” says Alex. “First time you walk in, you are a customer but you leave a friend. Second time you are a friend, but you leave as family. When you come three times, you don’t have to be shy anymore to say I don’t like that or can you add something. You can ask for your favorite dish and if we can do it, we will do it. That’s how we give people a feeling of home. We don’t see them as numbers ever. They are our friends and family. I do that for 120 customers a night. I allow them all to read me. You are my family, so just ask. Making you happy makes our night.”
“We are here,” adds Loreta who runs the front of the house. “We are always here on the floor. We feel so good when we are working here and seeing everybody. If we are missing it is a surprise.”
Like the terrible surprise that hit their family in 2013: cancer. As Nuovo was catching its stride, Alex was diagnosed with cancer and sidelined for two weeks following his surgery. But that was enough for him. He needed to be back at the stove. Even after his chemo treatments left him pale and weak he came back to Worcester from Dana Farber and put on his chef jacket for as long as he could.
“He might cook for an hour and then go to sleep,” says Loreta. “That’s how much this place means to him. How happy it makes him.”
Which is why the first six months in 2011 were so depressing. It was the realization of Alex’s American dream not just to be his own boss and creator but “to prove to myself if I could make it or not.” And signs initially pointed to “not.” I am not sure what the Albanian or Italian expression is for “crickets” but that’s what they heard until word of mouth spread. Mondays back then, it would just be Alex and Loreta and two customers at the bar. But they stayed persistent and worked hard. Alex’s optimism never wavered and Loreta never stopped learning how to run the business. Mondays today, traditionally a slower day in the restaurant business, you should call ahead.
Because Nuovo is a big family now, and Alex is cancer free and ready to serve them. That person likes the branzino? Alex makes sure he has it for him even if it is not on the menu. Just ask. And Loreta knows when they are coming, where they are sitting, when they are away and coming back from vacation. You will be taken care of because Alex and Loreta know in this business, you can be happy but never say, “I am all set.”
“We do not see the business as a competition with others,” says Alex. “We see the business as a serving the people we have known since we moved here from Albania. We try to bring the best. We try to picture a food that is not comparable directly to the other places but is our own flavors and technical way of cooking. Every day we come up with the specials and we allow people to come and try different flavors.”
Some of those different flavors can be found when you taste the dishes from the regular menu. Alex’s Albanian way of cooking influences everything he touches, especially in his use of fresh herbs. Albania is well known its herbs, wild and cultivated, and Alex deploys them to infuse even traditional Italian specialties with freshness and flavor. (To try more Albanian food, you’ll have to join a party in the room upstairs where 30% of the functions are for the Albanian community.)
But the regular menu is where Nuovo is now. To taste where Alex is going you’ll have to try the specials. And what is he playing with now? Tartufo or truffles, the most expensive ingredient in the world. Black truffles approach $100 per ounce and white truffles more than $150 per ounce. Truffle butter, even the jarred slices in oil, will set you back a bit. But Alex is finding ways to use them without customers having to take a second mortgage so they can explore.
“Not too many places use tartufo beyond the truffle oil. I see people liking it. Tartufo gives you a different taste in your mouth. You cannot judge tartufo you gotta like it and most people do,” says Alex. “It gives you a unique taste I give people an opportunity to try. We have to teach them. It’s not just about cooking. It is about teaching. It’s not about just giving them better food but teaching customers how to enjoy their food.”
For example, one night you might taste a lightly truffled lobster sitting on a risotto pancake as a starter or a decadent filet mignon, topped by a crab cake and a Béarnaise infused with those with fresh herbs, and served with truffle risotto. As he plays with the truffles, Alex is also experimenting with pastas as $10 side dishes so everyone can sample them and not fill up. A generous portion of homemade sacchettini stuffed with truffled lobster and squid ink pasta redolent with garlic were recent nods in this direction.
And if all that sounds like a lot of work for a restaurant that has no trouble filling seats today, that’s exactly what Alex and Loreta expect.
“What’s next is more work. Now it is more work. We are going to work harder for our customers because we love what we are doing,” says Alex. “We don’t just want more people here. In this business as soon as you make a couple of dollars, close your eyes, and think you are doing good you are gone. The guy next door will have the new ideas and take your customers. We want more family here who know we are working seriously and hard to make their time worth it.”