For Alex and Loreta Gjonca, the “experience” of dining at Nuovo is everything. It’s more than just the high-end Mediterranean style food — yes, it’s remarkable. It’s about feeling like you’re part of the family. It’s the subdued, elegant atmosphere; the ability of customers to ask for something that’s not on the menu. It’s the soft sound of the piano playing.
“Nuovo is all about making people feel like home,” says Alex.
It’s a simple enough sentiment, but the recipe for success took years to perfect.
Alex Gjonca is head chef and co-owner of Nuovo along with his wife and business partner Loreta. The Albanian couple opened the restaurant smack dab in the heart of Shrewsbury Street’s bustling dining scene three years ago. But when you walk into Nuovo, what you’re really seeing is a life’s work that began 24 years ago in a long closed Main Street restuarant’s dishroom.
“Alex started as a dishwasher,” Loreta recalls. “He said to the owner, ‘I know how to cook.’ He said ‘No you don’t.’ Alex cooked for him one night and he said, ‘Leave the dishes.’”
His culinary career had begun.
Over the next two and a half decades, Alex worked as a chef, executive chef and partner in several restaurants. He worked in Boston, Auburn, Worcester. He ran a pizzeria. But Nuovo is his dream come true. It’s also a point of personal pride.
“To keep a good name [in this business] is all about what people remember and talk about the next day,” Alex says.
A good part of that success happens in the kitchen. At Nuovo, it’s part science, part art, part culinary school. This is the part you don’t see sitting in Nuovo — Alex working with a small crew to perfect dishes. They’re pretty serious about this — the ingredients, the way the dish looks, getting it just right.
“We sit down and talk about the food,” Alex says. “We sit down and talk about the creating of the meal. And we taste and we go back and forth about which is the best ingredient that goes with that dish. We test it with our customers and we test it with our crew and we reach the conclusion that this dish works perfectly.”
Having a tight kitchen crew that are on the same page became a huge asset for Nuovo shortly after opening. In a business where you can make it or break it in just a matter of weeks, the restaurant hit an unexpected challenge in its second year. Alex was diagnosed with cancer.
“Alex did all the treatments at Dana Farber and would come back,” Loreta says. “I would be here looking over the business and one of our daughters would come with Alex and he would just put the chef’s coat on and start cooking.”
When he had surgery, Alex was sidelined for two weeks at home. Then, he was back.
Alex and the restaurant survived.
“We grow stronger,” he says of the experience. “You’ve got to love this business. You’ve got to love it in a way that you’re really going to sacrifice. It has nothing to do with the money. It’s a love.”
Despite being on one of the city’s most famous dining stretches, Alex says he doesn’t see the restaurants around him as competition.
“We are here to do our job to help the people of Worcester understand that we cook for them something different than the other guys,” Alex says. “I’ve been working here for 24 years and I love the city and I love the people and I want to give them something that they are going to appreciate.”