From the outside, Tradita Brick Oven Pizza in the Bronx, with its burgundy awning and white lettering, looks like it could be any other Italian restaurant. Inside, though, is a different story: The narrow dining room is decorated with 19th-century photographs of people in embroidered garments, taken in Albania. Albanian folk music swells from speakers. The available pizza is sprinkled with sesame seeds, and an entire side of the menu eschews the eponymous pie — instead focusing on Albanian specialties like burek, a phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese, spinach, or meat, and fli, a savory cake consisting of crepe-like dough and cheese baked one layer at a time.
Though it might seem unusual, pizzerias serving non-Italian food are fairly common in New York — building a category of Italian restaurants owned by non-Italian immigrants who use the popularity of pizza to help showcase food from their home countries. Guatemalan tamales get served beside pizza in Jamaica, Queens, and chicken tikka masala is on the menu at a pizzeria in Hell’s Kitchen. And even more pizzerias have Mexican food on the menu, a result of the large number of Mexican immigrants in the city.
For many of these restaurant owners, they end up doing this in part because pizza restaurant spaces are available — but it’s also a way to make a living selling a food that’s perceived to be more accessible: pizza. “I can not open a restaurant for only one [type of] of people,” says Demir Hamza, the manager of Tradita on East 204th Street in the Bronx. “If I open it only for Albanian people, that’s not good for my business. I need to have something for everybody.”
The Albanian pizzerias started following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Kosovo War in the 1990s, when a wave of Albanian immigrants settled in the city. A significant number of them took over pizza restaurants that had once belonged to Italian families — in 2001, the Times reported that an estimated 100 pizzerias in the greater metropolitan area were under Albanian management or ownership. While Albanian food was something alien to most New Yorkers, pizza was universal, and many of these owners decided not to advertise their Albanian heritage and maintain the old Italian menus and aesthetics of their businesses. Before Tradita opened in February 2017, for example, it was a conventional Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant.
Nowadays, many of New York’s pizzerias are run by restaurateurs from Mexico. People from Mexico make up one of the city’s largest immigrant groups, and as of 2010, 28 percent of all working-age Mexicans in New York were employed by the food-service industry. When many of these workers ascend the ranks to head restaurants themselves, they often serve the food they’re most familiar with. In some cases this means Mexican dishes, and when the owner’s resume includes one of the many Italian restaurants in the city, pizza.
Like Albanian predecessors, these Mexican pizzerias sometimes start as a matter of available real estate. Brothers Maximo and Francisco Garcia, natives of Puebla, Mexico, opened Great Burrito in Chelsea two years ago at the address of a former pizzeria. “Italian Pizza” still takes up significant real estate on the storefront at 100 West 23rd St. even though actual pizza is harder to spot inside the four-table spot. At Spiro’s Cafe & Pizza in Sunset Park, brothers Carlos and Samuel Cordoba — also from Puebla, Mexico — serve a mixture of Mexican fare, pizza, and Greek food, leftover from a Greek diner that once occupied the space.
After years spent jumping between restaurant jobs, both Cordoba brothers knew they wanted to open a restaurant of their own — they just needed the right opportunity. For Spiro’s, the chance presented itself in 2005 when the location of a local Greek diner opened up. “I used to pass this place everyday on my way to work, and I saw one day the spot was empty so we decided to rent it,” Carlos says.
The restaurateurs also simply known how to make pizza because of experience at an abundance of Italian restaurants in New York. Hamza of Tradita, for instance, ran a restaurant for more than 30 years in Kosovo, where 93 percent of residents identify as ethnic Albanians, but he ended up working at the now-closed Pazzo Pizza in Manhattan after moving here six years ago. Some of those Italian recipes ended up on the Tradita menu.
The Cordoba brothers of Spiro’s also use past restaurant experience at their restaurant at 942 4th Ave. Carlos once worked at a Greek diner and Samuel once worked at a pizzeria, so they incorporated pizza, gyro, and souvlaki into the menu. “Ever since I got to this country, I was working in a restaurant, so I was very familiar with the food,” Carlos says. They also pulled from their Mexican background, including items like tacos, tortas, and mole poblano — a dish Puebla is famous for. “We try to combine a little bit of each to give plenty of choices to the customers,” he says.
But the makeup of the menu isn’t just about the knowledge they have. Keeping pizza on the menu felt important during the initial opening for familiarity sake, says Maximo of Great Burrito. “When we started, people didn’t know us,” he says. “But we knew that the [old customers] liked pizza.” The extensive menu at the restaurant has sections dedicated to tostadas, tacos, burritos, and huaraches, each available with a selection of meats like carne asada, al pastor, and lengua — and only a brief mention of the establishment’s two-slices-and-a-soda special. A couple of pies lie under glass beside metal compartments stocked with diced onion, cilantro, lemon wedges, and squeeze bottles of salsa. Though the Mexican dishes like enchiladas and burritos are more popular today, pizza still sells, so it holds its spot on the menu, he says.
Selling pizza hasn’t always been a safe bet for restaurant owners in the city. In the early 20th century, when Italian immigration into the U.S. was at its peak, pizza was still considered “immigrant food” — in other words, something the general dining population wasn’t interested in eating. Pizzerias did exist, but they were typically limited to ethnic enclaves and catered to a strictly Italian clientele. “To find pizza in the 1930s, you had to go into some gritty Italian neighborhood,” says Michael Marino, an associate professor of history at the College of New Jersey who specializes in New York City history. “And if you didn’t speak the language or practice the culture, you really weren’t welcome.”
It would be another generation before pizza entered the American mainstream. Post-World War II, the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants were assimilating into the culture and attitudes toward immigrant foods were shifting. Cheesy, portable pizza was among the first foreign foods of the era to make the transition into the all-American diet. “You see pizza in Rebel Without a Cause; pizza in the ‘That’s Amore’ by Dean Martin. It becomes a prominent thing,” Marino says.
As Americans embraced Italian cuisine, actual Italian people were becoming harder to find in the food industry. Italian immigration had slowed following the Immigration of Act of 1924, and the new social status of first- and second-generation Italian-Americans gave many of them the freedom to pass over the unglamorous restaurant jobs their older relatives had filled in the past.
Today, Italian immigrants make up less than one percent of the New York City population, but pizza is still an immigrant dish, thanks to the new generation of immigrants from different countries taking over old spots. Some owners decide to leave their pizzerias mostly from unchanged from what customers are familiar with. Others add a bit of themselves and their histories into their restaurants, hoping diners will appreciate the variety.
“Sometimes [with pizza], people are used to same, same, same,” Demir says. “You have to do something different if you want their attention.”