Hungry City: From a Pizza Oven in the Bronx, Albanian Specialties
Tradita is not quite the sit-down restaurant the elder Mr. Kukaj envisioned — that is still to come, opening next month in a larger space on Arthur Avenue to the south. Here there are just a handful of tables, all built for two, and when I visited, the only other customers were picking up pizzas to go.
I felt sorry that they didn’t have a chance to try qofte Sharri, ground veal shaped into a crepe and folded around a briny cheese from the Albanian highlands. This is grilled until the juices hiss and the cheese is magma. The salt is profound, almost too much, and then your sense of “too much” shifts and it is exactly what you want.
The Albanian section of the menu is brief and distinctly carnal, including smaller but still rugged qofte the size of pincushions, fat tubes of veal sausage (qebapa) and skinny links of beef (suxhuk) with a tickle of paprika. There is bread to absorb the salt: chewy, fluffy rounds smoky from the oven, and leqenik, cornbread rich as poundcake, with vivid strokes of spinach and a crown of maze, a cottagelike cheese.
Mantia can be eaten in two bites, flaky phyllo giving way to ground veal, still steaming. Burek is almost a meal in itself, the phyllo crackly and capitulating. The most luxurious ones can barely contain interiors of goat cheese and maze, cloudy and oozing at once. They’re presented on wooden cutting boards, raw-edged or scarred from a knife and all the more beautiful for the use.
The pizza, too, is worthy, cracker-thin at the center with a slight thickening at the crust. Again, meat is all: The Tradita pizza is strewn with scarlet tabs of beef prosciutto, smoked in-house for two weeks until it takes on a mineral tang, and nubs of beef sausage buried among dark olive rings.
At the top of the menu appear the words “Cka ka qellu,” pronounced SHA ka chell-OO. (This is also the name of the restaurant soon to open on Arthur Avenue, which will be wholly devoted to Albanian food.)
“I’ve never found a perfect translation,” Mr. Kukaj said. “‘Whatever you have’ — if we invite you, even if we have nothing, we will give you whatever is left.” It’s a phrase born of poverty, he explained, and a testament to a spirit of kinship in hard times.
“Even if we have nothing, we will have love,” he said. “And salt.”
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