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As Italians Move Up, A New Group Does the Pizza & Pasta
By Dexter Filkens, New York Times
On one hand it nice to see the Italians moving up.But for me it doesn't feel the same eating in an Italian Restaurant not run by an Italian. However, if it has to be anyone, Albanians have centuries long association with Italy, and within Italy.
April 3, 2001 - - The Famous Famiglia restaurant at Broadway and 50th Street in Manhattan is like many of hundreds of pizzerias in the city. A scene from Venice adorns one wall. Pictures of famous Italian-Americans like Frank Sinatra and Rocky Marciano hang from another. The menu offers "Italian specialties" like eggplant parmigiana and baked ziti.
The only thing un-Italian about Famous Famiglia is the famiglia that own it: Tony, Paul, John and Giorgio Kolaj, Albanians from the former Yugoslavia. Like hundreds of their compatriots who fled to New York during the cold war or the Balkan conflict of the 1990's, the Kolajs have quietly prospered by opening Italian restaurants, cooking Italian food and playing down their own ethnic origins.
"We're very true to the Italian recipes, more than the Italians," said Paul Kolaj, who moved to the United States in 1970, grew up in the South Bronx and opened his first pizzeria in 1986. "I'm not sure I like the idea of advertising the fact that we're Albanian. It's a touchy situation."
If the culinary affinity doesn't seem obvious Albanian cuisine includes dishes like faszle (bean stew), not pizza the Albanians say they are capitalizing on experience and geography. Many spent time in refugee camps in Italy, where they learned the food and the language, before immigrating to the United States. During the cold war, many residents of Albania defied their Communist government by tuning into Italian television. Before that, Italy under Mussolini annexed the country of Albania in April 1939, and controlled it until 1945.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but some restaurateurs say ethnic Albanians own or operate more than 100 Italian restaurants and pizzerias in the metropolitan region, including all five boroughs, Westchester County, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The Kolajs own eight Famous Famiglia restaurants in New York City, and recently edged out larger Italian restaurant chains in a bid to open two pizzerias at Newark International Airport. Paul Vuli owns all or part of four Italian restaurants in the metropolitan region, including Fino in Murray Hill, and he is preparing to open a fifth. Imer Deja and his uncles, cousins and brothers own nine pizzerias in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Patsy's Pizzeria in East Harlem is now owned by Frank Brija, an Albanian from Kosovo.
"I've stopped looking for them, there are too many," said Ismer Mejku, who runs the Albanian Yellow Pages, a directory of Albanian-owned businesses in the United States. Mr. Mejku says he plans to run advertisements for about 75 Albanian-owned restaurants in New York in his 2001 edition, the overwhelming majority offering Italian cuisine. "There are hundreds."
Many of their owners started out much like Mr. Vuli, who left Yugoslavia in 1972 and lived in Italy for a year while waiting to get into the United States. When he arrived in New York at 18, he spoke Italian but almost no English, and started washing dishes in a Brooklyn restaurant for $90 a week. He worked his way up from there, and opened his first restaurant, Piccolo Mondo, in 1977.
"Italy is where it all started," he said, between sips of bottled water at his table in Fino's.
But the link to Italy is not the only reason. Albanians say they are also capitalizing on an industry that has long depended on freshly arrived immigrants to thrive. As Italian-Americans have moved up the economic ladder and out to the suburbs, Albanians are taking over.
"The Italians can't do the work anymore, they've gotten fat in America," said Joe Carnevalla, an Italian- American whose company supplies groceries to 700 pizzerias in the New York area. "You go into an Italian restaurant now, you see Albanians. You think they're Italian. They speak Italian, they look like us, the food is great."
They have done much to cultivate such authenticity. While many of the restaurant owners describe themselves as fiercely patriotic, they set aside their ethnic pride when it comes to running their businesses.
Imer Deja's family bought nine Italian restaurants in New York City and didn't change any of the names. Imer owns Mike's Pizza in Brooklyn; his brother, Zija, owns Charlie's Pizza in Brooklyn; Cousin Bill owns La Belleza Pizza in Manhattan. "If you change the name, you could lose customers," Imer Deja said.
When Gjergj Dedvukaj, an Albanian from Yugoslavia, bought Giovanni's in the Bronx, he decided against changing cuisines. "Customers don't know Albanian food," he said. Some of his customers think he is Italian, and he does little to dissuade them. "They think I'm Giovanni."
The Kolajs, the owners of the Famous Famiglia pizzerias, have made the most of their 14-month stay in a camp in Italy, where their father died and the youngest brother, Giorgio, was born. In a company brochure, the Kolajs don't mention their Albanian roots, but they do say that the family "made the pilgrimage from Italy to America." In their new line of Italian food products, which include spaghetti, marinara sauce and ziti, their mother, Roze Kolaj, is featured on the logo as Mamma Rosa, holding a bunch of tomatoes.
At the same time, the Kolaj brothers have donated thousands of dollars worth of food and clothing to Albanians dislocated in the Balkans. "We've never forgotten our homeland," Mr. Kolaj said.
Tony and Tina's Pizzeria in the Bronx is one of the few establishments that show their ethnic roots. The mostly Albanian crew tosses pizza dough beneath flags and posters celebrating the struggle of their brethren in Kosovo. The pizzeria also sells burek, an Albanian meat pie.
The influx of Albanians into the pizza parlors and restaurants has sparked some skepticism and, perhaps, resentment. Until about a year ago, Sette Colli Ristorante in Brooklyn was owned by an Albanian, who had started the restaurant years before. Then a person of Italian descent bought it from the Albanian. Salvatore Adamita, the new owner, said he purchased Sette Colli last year when people in the neighborhood discovered that the former owner was not Italian.
"We brought it back to the way it's supposed to be," Mr. Adamita said. "The food is much better. The customers notice." Mr. Adamita said it was only natural that Italians would know better about Italian food. "We originated it," he said. "We know how to do it."
Mr. Adamita seems to be in the minority. For the most part, Italian- American restaurateurs say they don't mind the competition, or the throngs of Albanians eager to buy their establishments. Often, the Albanian buyers have worked in their restaurants for several years.
"I appreciate the Italian guy, I learned from him," said Atli Tocci, an Albanian who bought Portobello Pizzeria Restaurant in Brooklyn from its Italian-American owner five months ago. "I worked here 10 years. I learned how to make good pizza. One day he say to me: You want to buy it? I say, why not?"
Like the Italians before them, the Albanians are using pizzerias to segue into the middle and higher ends of the restaurant business. Bruno Ristorante, a Midtown restaurant specializing in Northern Italian cuisine, was described as "elegant" and "excellent" in the 2001 Zagat Survey. Its owner, Bruno Selimaj, came to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1971 and began his career by washing dishes in an Italian restaurant in Midtown.
In 1999, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani led Gov. George W. Bush through the old Italian-American enclave of Belmont in the Bronx, he took him to Giovanni's, owned by Mr. Dedvukaj, an Albanian from Yugoslavia.
The mayor, Italian by descent, has declared his approval. "The Albanians do a wonderful job of operating Italian restaurants and cooking Italian food."
But Joe Carnevalla, the food supplier, doesn't think it will last forever.
"Just wait," Mr. Carnevalla said. "Ten years from now, the Albanians won't want to work, and some other group will come in and do just what they did."
As Italians Move Up, a New Group Does the Pizza and Pasta
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