At Uncle Lou in Manhattan’s Chinatown, one of Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants of 2022, the collaboration between proprietor Louis Wong and his younger friends and family is partly a way to preserve the cuisine of the loh wah kui—a term that refers to the first immigrants that came over from Cantonese villages around the Pearl River Delta. The loh wah kiu are responsible for having built Chinatowns throughout the US, and “most Chinese Americans and Chinatown families can trace their ancestry to this region,” says Wong, who is in his 60s.
Locals in their 80s and 90s come in to enjoy Chenpi duck and steamed buffalo fish with braised pomelo peel, foods they grew up eating that are otherwise hard to find in New York’s Chinatown. On the heels of plenty of positive media attention, younger diners are swarming Uncle Lou, too, excited to try these dishes. The influx of a generation of younger diners gives staying power to dishes that might otherwise have faded into obscurity.
“As great as it is to have Lou’s friends come in, what’s exciting is that we’re turning a new generation of people onto this type of food,” says Andy Chau, a 33-year-old server.
Still, the foundation of the food comes from the older generation at these restaurants. The chefs in the kitchen at Uncle Lou, many of them from Wong’s generation, are well-versed in cooking these often time-intensive dishes. The same is true of Yahia Kamal, who prides himself on taking no shortcuts in anything he makes. “If I took you to Amman, Ramallah, or Jerusalem, you’ll have the same thing—no fillers, no additives,” he says. “The way it’s done over there is how it’s served here.”
In Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, the 86-year-old pastry maker Addolorata “Dora” Marzovilla runs the show at Nonna Dora’s, and she prides herself on staying traditional as new pizzerias and brunch restaurants open on the surrounding blocks. The orecchiette with rabbit ragù is a dish that her son and business partner, Nicola Marzovilla, remembers eating every Sunday as a child in Puglia. Nicola once owned Italian restaurants, including I Trulli, where he served food from the Apulia region, and for more than 30 years, Addolorata helped to carefully make pastas by hand for his menu. When I Trulli closed recently, Addolorata wasn’t ready for retirement. Now, customers clamor for reservations at a 32-seat pie bar.
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These restaurants strengthen cultural ties, but for the families who run them, it’s also a way to reconnect with one another. In Long Beach, Nguyen has the help of her husband, her 69-year-old sister, and Kiera, who had prior restaurant service experience but is only now learning how to be a chef by working with her grandmother. Meanwhile, Linda’s role is to oversee front-of-house duties and make drinks, like perilla gingerade tonic and iced Vietnamese coffee.
Nicola’s wife, Astrid, who never wanted to work in I Trulli’s bustling 200-seat dining room, has taken to the intimate energy of Nonna Dora’s. After all that time working with his mother, the rest of Nicola’s family has joined them in the new restaurant. Nicola’s daughter Olivia wanted to learn how to bartend to put herself through grad school, and she has since taken over the beverage program. Running the restaurant has become a “pet project” for the whole family, Nicola says.
“It gave me a chance,” Nicola says, “after not being able to spend time with my children because I worked nights, to be able to work with them.”