MOCAEATS Features Xi’an Famous Foods and Di Palo Selects

By Wun Kuen Ng

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in conjunction with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council (Two Bridges) presented MOCAEATS series on Thursday, December 5 at MOCA. Erika Lesser moderated the panel to present with Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods and Lou Di Palo of Di Palo Selects—Italian Specialty Foods. MOCA highlights the 160 years of Chinese American history through creative exhibitions, educational and social programs. Two Bridges serves communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side since 1955 with the goal of creating equitable housing, celebrating cultural diversity through neighborhood-based programs, and maintaining economic vitality. Both small food businesses featured play a cultural role in the Chinatown and Little Italy community.

 

Di Palo spoke about being the fourth generation proprietor of a small business in Little Italy. Although he thinks of himself as American first, he did not want to lose the Italian heritage and value the Italian immigrants had brought to the United States. His great grandparents were peasant farmers who emigrated from Basilicata to the United States in 1903. Having the skills of farming, his great grandfather opened a small diary and sold fresh cheese from 1910-39. In 1914, the rest of the family joined him. Di Palo’s grandparents opened the current shop in 1925 also making fresh cheese and milk. Di Palo wants to keep alive the spirit of the Italian American community even though many had assimilated and moved out of the community. His children were sent back to Italy to learn about their heritage and not lose sight of being American.

The store had expanded to cover foods from 23 regions of Italy. He makes an effort to reconnect with the small local farmers in Italy and introduce some products in America. There are some local traditions that might never agree with the American palate like fermented ricotta or milk maggots in cheese, but, some oldies are making a comeback like a fresh basket cheese.

He runs the shop like a family and welcomes customers to share the food. If one is waiting in line, he often hears giving an impromptu lecture on the products– how to eat them, what they are for, why they are special. Locals and those that left the neighborhood never forgot the unique atmosphere he created in the shop. Three advices he gives to aspiring entrepreneurs: great quality, great service and reasonable price. His comfort food, mostly for the memory it invokes is pasta in garlic oil. It reminds him of his grandma every time he eats it.

Wang joined his father’s Xi’an food business in Flushing after a stint in the corporate world. He felt that he had to grab the opportunity to take the business to the next level. Born in Xi’an, he emphasizes authenticity in Xi’an Famous Foods like the street foods he had as a child. Although, there are several locations, Xi’an Famous Foods maintain a small casual and cozy atmosphere. To keep the cost down, the locations are in decent neighborhoods, which require navigation but nevertheless accessible.

One of his favorite foods is the soup that his grandfather makes for him when he was a child—a soup with lamb broth, old pieces of flat bread, and glass noodles. Every time he drinks the soup he thinks of his grandfather. Thin lamb skewer and persimmon cakes are also among his favorites.

Small businesses face challenges of high rents, escalating fixed costs to maintain the operations of a small business.

Little Italy and Chinatown declared as a historical district in five years ago celebrate tradition and family.

After the panel discussion, the audience members ate cold skin noodles, Piave cheese, Crazy Fish Sweet Riesling, and drank Alva red wine.

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