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Worcester Restaurants are Flavor Forward

Worcester’s cultural and cuisine scenes let its diversity shine.

By Brittany Anas on September 21, 2021

Group of people dining inside of Worcester's Nuovo restaurant

More than three decades ago, Alex Gjonca was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. One night, the kitchen was short-staffed, and Gjonca, an Italian-trained chef, convinced the owner to let him take over. From there, his culinary career in the United States took off.

Today, Gjonca is the head chef of Nuovo, which he and his wife, Loreta Gjonca, opened in 2011. Scan the menu at this upscale restaurant on Shrewsbury Street, and a culturally rich story unfolds in front of you. Chef Gjonca puts his own spin on Italian dishes, many of which have Mediterranean influences, from Caprese salads to salmon sautéed with creamy Madeira wine.

The Albanian couple also introduces patrons to their culture through dishes such as the house antipasto, which comes with an Albanian yogurt sauce to eat alongside tomatoes, olives, Italian peppers, feta cheese and crostini.

“If you’re to find a diverse community, it’s in Worcester,” says Loreta Gjonca, who wants her restaurant to feel like home for regulars and visitors alike.

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The vibrant, cosmopolitan culinary food scene in Worcester is, no doubt, a tasty testament to the diversity that thrives in the community. Worcester is home to a diverse population, where culture is experienced and appreciated through food and art, and being an inclusive city is a shared community value.

More than 70 languages are spoken in the city’s public schools, and the city has one of the highest populations of Ghanaians in the U.S. A point of pride for Worcester is it has received multiple perfect scores from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization.

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A Culinary Melting Pot

The area’s diverse population has given way to a diverse culinary landscape in Worcester, with dishes from around the world served in the city’s locally-owned restaurants.

For example, the region is home to establishments like Gong Cha, which began in 2006 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and is known for its bubble tea. (Gong Cha translates to “tribute tea for the emperor.”) Menu highlights include lychee slushies and fresh tea with pearl bubbles (think brown sugar, Earl Grey or strawberry bubble milk teas.)

“We have great, down-to-earth customers. There’s no pretentiousness about Worcester. It’s a very welcoming community.”

Brendan O’Connor, O’Connor’s Restaurant & Bar

Westside Steak & BBQ is a beloved barbecue joint slinging slabs of ribs, barbecue chicken and pulled pork that can be washed down with local beers on tap. At Anokye Krom, traditional Ghanaian dishes like banku and fufu are on the menu, along with fried plantains, stews and vegetarian dishes.

The culinary team at Nuestra, a Puerto Rican restaurant, fuses their grandparents’ traditional recipes with modern flare for dishes like empanadillas; yuca fries topped with lettuce, cilantro, bacon, chicken, cheese and a house sauce; and pernil (pork shoulder) sandwiches. And at El Basha, Mediterranean dishes are inspired by family recipes.

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A local institution, O’Connor’s Restaurant & Bar, opened in 1989 as a 75 seat Irish restaurant with a cozy bar. Brendan O’Connor and his wife, Claire, who moved from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland to Massachusetts, thought an Irish restaurant and bar would resonate with the Worcester community.

The restaurant — where fish and chips and potato pizzas are top-sellers — has grown over the years and can now accommodate 500 people.

“We have great, down-to-earth customers,” says Brendan O’Connor. “There’s no pretentiousness about Worcester. It’s a very welcoming community, and we’re thrilled to be here and to have raised our family here.”

Worcester is home to several breweries, such as Wormtown Brewery, and along Shrewsbury Street, aka “restaurant row,” residents will find more than 40 restaurants in a 1-mile stretch. To put it another way – there’s an eatery to suit just about any craving.

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An Arts Scene that Celebrates Diversity

For a unique art experience (no admission ticket required), residents can head to The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts. Through a pair of largescale 3D glasses available to the public, they can take a glimpse at the “Mooncake” mural, which was created during the 2018 POW! WOW! Worcester Festival. When you look at it through the 3D glasses, the image of skeletal figures transforms to a couple in a loving embrace.

This is an example of the innovative arts scene in Worcester, which is vibrant and entrepreneurial.

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The region is home to places like ArtsWorcester, which showcases over 300 established and emerging artists and offers contemporary art education.

POW! WOW! Worcester has a mission of curating public art that benefits the entire community. Since its inception in 2016, it has curated more than 130 public art pieces, including 106 murals and several seasonal and permanent installations.

For instance, two years ago, leading artists from around the world gathered to create vibrant, relatable murals in Great Brook Valley, an affordable housing neighborhood where the majority of residents are single moms with small children.

The paintings brightened the area where the kids live and attend school, bringing world-class art into their neighborhood.

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In 2021, POW! WOW! Worcester is working with community members and stakeholders to bring its strength of mural curation, execution, community building and youth engagement to the Main South neighborhood.

This is one of the area’s most diverse neighborhoods for art, food and music — all of which will be on display during the 10-day project.

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