Albania on Arthur Ave

September 2, 2008

Continuing down the UN’s list of nations, we learned that Albania comes after Afghanistan.  A lot of Albanians apparently live in the Bronx so we took the 5 train to the Pelham Parkway stop, an hour from downtown Brooklyn.

We went two places.

First up was Dukagjini Burktore, a small storefront with 4 tables on Lydig Avenue.  The menu was even smaller, complete with six items:  meat burek, spinach burek, cheese burek, yogurt, espresso and cappuccino.  This was enough.   Burek is fantastic, essentially a phyllo pie with filling.  At $3.50 per slice, we had four.  The yogurt was unflavored, thin but not watery, cold and satisfying.  Operated by the same family for 14 years, worth the train ride.

After dodging rush hour traffic on our walk across Bronx Park, we finally found our way to Arthur Avenue, the Bronx’s famed Little Italy.  I had never been before, but of course had heard from everyone about the Italian joints in the neighborhood, sausages hanging in windows and outdoor pastry shops, and gelato and hand-rolled cigars.  The street was quiet as apparently a number of restaurants close for extended August vacations.  Albania, separated from the heel of Italy by 74 kilometers of Adriatic Sea, was represented by one spot on the strip dominated by its larger, more celebrated neighbor.

We thought the Gurra Café, 2325 Arthur Avenue, was some sort of Balkan Social Club when we stumbled upon it.  We recognized the Albanian flag outside, and spotted tough looking, square jawed middle-aged dudes with closely cropped hair sitting at the table outside, talking quietly.  We went in anyways, taking our seats in the corner under the TV broadcasting poorly dubbed music videos from somewhere in eastern Europe, the women broadcasted undulating their hips ever so slightly and the men looking confused but happy to be there, singing pop songs in a language I didn’t understand.  The restaurant itself was very nice, dark woods and green paint, ceiling beams meeting in the middle of the room to form an inverted V.

Our waiter was friendly and helpful.  When we first walked in he smiled and asked, “Do you know that this is Albanian food?” Clearly a lot of people stumble in thinking the food here is Italian. We said yes, that’s what we were here for.  He suggested the combo meal so that we could have a sampler, and promptly brought us two much needed beers.  We watched the bad Balkan pop videos on the screen above us, and happily sipped while waiting for our food.

The food was decent, typical of what I think we’re going to find as we visit other spots from the region.  We split up a combo meal and got salad with chunks of a mild type of feta-like cheese and a variety of smoked meats, including Qebapa (Kosova style sausage), Suxhuk (Albanian sausage), Pleskavice (flat Albanian meatball), and veal.  A basket of fluffy, round, almost Turkish-style bread accompanied the meal.  Stuffed as we were from all the burek just an hour earlier, we managed to put down about 2/3 of this feast, and took the rest home to enjoy the next morning for breakfast (which we did, with fried eggs).

When we finished, we told our waiter about what we were doing, trying to find food from every country in NYC, blah, blah, and he said we could get most of it right in that neighborhood.  Looking at the citi-data for the area, it certainly does seem that there is quite an ethnic mix.  On the list of first ancestries reported, the vast majority claim Italian ancestry (3239 residents), and a good number hail from Albania (1313 residents), with many other ancestries (from Sub-Saharan African to Hungarian) included on the list.  But when we told our waiter we had come here looking for Albanian food, he said, actually, this restaurant’s proprietors were from Kosovo.  Then he laughed and said that because the two countries had been one until recently, it’s all the same thing really.  We agreed, finished our beers, hopped on the D train, and were home within an hour.