Joe & Mimma’s turns 50 – Daily Press

GRAFTON – Is that Vietnamese cannoli you’re serving?

“No, oh no!” Bui Quan Hung said with a big, wide laugh as he sat in a booth at Joe & Mimma’s Italian restaurant and pizzeria. “It’s Italian cannoli!”

“I learned from mum how to cook Italian. I worked with her in the kitchen.

This year, Joe & Mimma’s celebrates its 50th anniversary. Bui (his Vietnamese surname), known to all simply as “Howard”, has been with the Grafton Restaurant 47 of those years.

“This restaurant has been good to me and the Buffa family has been good to me. I consider them my family,” said Howard, who will turn 70 next year.

Howard, who was in the South Vietnamese Air Force and flew Huey helicopters during the war, escaped in 1975, leaving his entire family behind. “I had no choice but to leave my family,” he explained. “Yes [the North Vietnamese] had me, they would have put me in prison. This happened to all my friends and many people lost their lives after being imprisoned.

“The only path to freedom was to leave.”

He never saw his mother and father again. Howard returned to Vietnam three years ago for the first time and only his two sisters remained.

He eventually made it to the United States and came to Newport News when he was sponsored by a local church. “I didn’t speak English and I didn’t have any money. I had to find a job,” he said. He got a job at Joe & Mimma and never left.

Rosaria Buffa, known as Mama, and her husband, Girolamo, moved from Sicily to New York in 1968 and then to Virginia in 1970. They opened Joe & Mimma’s in November 1972 after remodeling the old Western Auto Store along US 17 in York County.

“The Buffa family has been my family from the start,” Howard said. “On holy days when mom cooked at home, I was invited home to be with her family. I was single and married late in life and they would invite my family then.

He named two of his children, Rosaria and Girolamo, after the Buffas.

Mario, one of four Buffa children, took over the restaurant after his parents retired, and Harold stayed. Over the years Howard has been a busboy, cook, waiter, host, and then 10 years ago he became the owner.

Mario Buffa, in essence, handed the business over to Howard after opening the Riverwalk restaurant in Yorktown and then the Water Street Grill next door. He also owns and operates the Waypoint Restaurant in Williamsburg.

Today, Howard’s biggest problem “is finding good help.” Suzie Baumm has been a waitress and “major domo” at the restaurant for 27 years, working with Mario and Howard. “But now I need help in the kitchen and the waiters,” he said. “No one comes looking for a job. We are like many other restaurants and Mario needs help too.

Howard’s wife, Tuyet Suong Thi Nguyen, often comes on busy nights, like Fridays. “When I’m understaffed, I call him to help me,” he explained. His daughter Rosario will take charge on Sunday. In May, his son Girolamo will graduate from Radford University “and he will come to work for me, I think”.

Business has improved recently, but “that’s not a pre-COVID way to compare,” he said. “Before COVID, we were packed on Friday nights and had six to eight servers. Right now we only have three to four servers and we’re not thrilled. »

Many Howard customers have been coming for 25 or 30 years, enjoying plenty of choice, just like when the Buffa family was there. His personal favorites are lasagna and pasta with spaghetti sauce. “I’m a very simple guy.”

“I’ve been cooking in the kitchen for a very, very long time,” he said. “So I can cook anything.”

Online reviewers love Joe & Mimma’s, with many praising the service and pasta. One customer wrote “if it’s a spaghetti and meatball type night you’ll find the best”.

The company is located at 5742 George Washington Memorial Highway in York County. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.

The restaurant’s anniversary date is in November and Howard doesn’t know how it will be celebrated. “I would like to reunite the whole family. Let’s see how it works,” he said.

At the 25th anniversary, “we had so many customers that we couldn’t handle them all.”

That would suit Howard just fine this time around.