You’ve probably already eaten food made by Albanians, likely without realizing it. Almost 20 years ago, the New York Times reported that ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing a genocidal conflict in Kosovo were taking over pizza parlors all over town. The Bronx’s Little Italy was a bellwether. At pizzerias like Tony and Tina’s, flaky, cheese-bulging bureks were soon being sold alongside plain cheese slices. And a handful of taverns, such as Gurra Café, featuring a short menu of Albanian food were debuting in what was being referred to as Little Kosovo.
Then, three years ago, a more ambitious dining establishment appeared, a spot fitter for families and celebrations than the Albanian taverns. It was called Çka Ka Qëllu, an old proverb meaning “what we happen to have.” The owner is Ramiz Kukaj, who came here from Kosovo in the mid-’90s, and went into real estate before becoming a restaurateur. The chef, also from Kosovo, is Afrim Kalgini. And it won’t surprise you to hear that Grammy winner Dua Lipa, whose parents are Balkan refugees, has dined there.
Now Kukaj has boldly opened a new branch on the eastern slope of Murray Hill. Located in a rare Manhattan backwater that looks more like the city did in the 1960s, the place fills the ground floor of a stately townhouse, with three end-to-end dining rooms and an L-shaped flagstone terrace in back. (There’s a winter dining chalet in front of the restaurant.) The interior is decorated with 18th- and 19th-century knick-knacks that include horse collars and hoes, antique kitchen utensils, stringed instruments, peasant costumes, and grainy black-and-white photos. Indeed, the walls are a delight for those who revel in historical material, something the menu itself does.
Take the Skenderbeg steak ($25). Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skenderbeg (or Skanderbeg), was a 15th-century nobleman who battled to expel the Ottoman Empire from what is now northern Albania. Investigating this story further is up to you, since it gets really complicated, but suffice to say Rembrandt made a portrait of him, and now the Skenderbeg steak is one of the tastiest and most interesting things on Çka Ka Qëllu’s menu.
A tender smoked steak, sliced thin, is rolled around a core of white cheese. Shaped like a very long cigar, it’s breaded and fried, and a sauce of almost pure cream is piped along its length. Finally, a series of marinated pepper strips are laid perpendicularly. The visual result is just as arresting as the dish is delicious, and when you cut into it, white cheese oozes out. (A similar treatment across the border in Serbia is known as “the maiden’s dream.”) Never has something probably inspired by the Austrian schnitzel (or maybe we can trace it back to Milan) enjoyed such a colorful variation.
There are no bureks on the menu, because they are generally the province of places that specialize in them. In the Bronx, for example, you can get these spectacular stuffed phyllo pies at coffee house Dukagjini Burek in Pelham Parkway, and Çka wisely hesitates to tread on its turf. There are, however, oodles of wonderful pastries available, beginning with mantia, which shows that, in spite of age-old conflict between Turkey and various Balkan states, the latter owe much to the former culinarily.
While Turkish manti is a thick-skinned, noodle-type lamb dumpling often served in tomato sauce, in Albania the related term mantia applies to a small bready turnover filled with ground veal, here with a bowl of distinguished artisanal yogurt. Speaking of bread, one of the great delights of eating at Çka Ka Qëllu is the bread called somun, a puffy pita made on the premises. When you order any of the dips in the appetizer section ($5 to $6 each), you will receive a pair of somun steaming from the oven. These dips include the characteristically Balkan ajavar, a sweet red pepper paste cool on the tongue; and a garlicky yogurt dip called tarator that you may recognize from Greek restaurants.
Somun is also the unfailing accompaniment of qebapa ($15), the little skinless sausages known in the Slavic languages as cevapi. Made here from veal as a result of the Muslim heritage of many Kosovo Albanians (indeed, there’s no pork on the restaurant’s menu), the grilled cylinders are laced with onions and garlic, with no stinting on the salt. They’re so good, it’s hard not to gobble them fast, wadding bites of warm bread as you go.
Apart from other grilled items which make up a large part of Çka Ka Qëllu’s menu (sausage, chicken, shish kebab, etc.), most of the meat appears in the menu section devoted to tava — stews roasted in a decorated clay vessel. In a classic goulash ($16) made once again from veal, the meat turns exceedingly tender in its paprika-laced broth, almost more soup than stew. If you want something thicker and more rib-sticking, dive into a crock of fasul, white navy beans cooked down into a flavorsome sludge with your choice of smoked meat or sausage.
To wet your whistle, there are wines, mainly from Italy and California, and beers, too, but no mixed drinks as of yet. Traipsing down to the dessert selection — there are about three offered each day — you’ll probably find that baklava is the most familiar option, but it’s no different from other baklavas you’ve tasted, sticky and nutty. So on this occasion a friend and I picked trilece, with no idea what it was. It proved to be a milk-soaked cake with a caramel topping that seemed oddly familiar.
We finally realized it was tres leches cake, a staple of Latin restaurants variously said to have originated in Nicaragua or Mexico. We asked the server, “How did this get onto an Albanian menu?” She smiled and replied, “It came from Brazil. Back in Albania, Brazilian soap operas became exceedingly popular in the ’90s. And it was from them we learned how to make the cake.” True or not, I can think of no better way to demonstrate the internationalization of food in the modern era.