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13 December 2018

Albanian Grocery

ALBANIA 🇦🇱
All photos by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

This article originally appeared in the 13 December 2018 edition of The Queens Tribune:

In the early 2000s, I had my first experience meeting an Albanian pizza maker on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx at Tony & Tina’s Pizzeria. After a short inquiry and a couple of orders of byrek instead of a typical slice, I had more questions than answers. Luckily, a succinct article in The New York Times from 2001 answered most of my questions, but Albanians’ connection to pizza—and how they started taking over pizzerias from upwardly-mobile Italians—always fascinated me.

While Albania was not part of the former Yugoslavia, many ethnic Albanians in New York City are actually from places that were, especially Montenegro and Kosovo. In the 1990s they started arriving in waves, as dire circumstances forced them to flee violence and hardship in their own homelands. During that decade, the populations of Balkan peoples in New York City exploded, and Ridgewood was one of the locations that saw much of this resettlement. The formerly German neighborhood is now home to the Serbian Association of NY, and in nearby Glendale you can find the Albanian American Islamic Center. Myrtle Avenue favorite Muncan Food Corp. is possibly the city’s premier location for cured Balkan meats. The now-closed Etno Restaurant, which was under the Fresh Pond Road subway station, used to hang the flag of every nation of the former Yugoslavia from its awning and serve the foods familiar to all Balkan peoples.


Nowadays, Fresh Pond Road is more Polish than Balkan, but a new grocery store has put up its bright red-and-white awning with the flag of Albania to declare its allegiance to the latter. Only four months old and still figuring out its rotating menus and operating times, Albanian Grocery is owned by Lulzim Nika, who came to New York City 10 years ago, a bit after the large influx of the ’90s. He is originally from Puka, a town of 11,000 people in northern Albania, but he spent the majority of his life in the capital city of Tirana doing work unrelated to food. Mr. Nika immediately went into pizza upon arriving here, however. With the right connections and commitment, he now operates four pizzerias in Manhattan after a four-year stint at Rubirosa, which he told me inspired him most.

The opportunity arose when the shop’s previous owner passed away and the business was up for sale. As someone with a passion for what dough can become in the right hands and the right time in an oven, Mr. Nika believed that a prepared-foods deli with a natural knack for making delicious Albanian byrek was the right fit for him and the neighborhood. Byrek is the Albanian word for what is known as börek or burek or many other terms in many other nations. Basically, it is a flaky-layered phyllo dough pastry filled with ingredients of the chef’s choosing. Common in Albanian byrek is ground beef, cheese or spinach, all three of which are available here.



When I asked Mr. Nika if there were certain similarities between the skills of a pizza maker and a great byrek chef, he laughed and exclaimed “Of course!” as if the question answered itself and was unnecessary. When you understand dough, you can be very good at both. He still spends most of his time at his pizzerias, while the day-to-day operations here are run by three lovely women.

On my third visit, I asked to observe the making of the byrek from flour to finished product, and was eagerly taken to the kitchen for a demonstration. The layers of dough have to be first pushed thin by hand and then flipped to stretch them out further. One byrek pie will use four of these thin layers and have ingredients stuffed in between before baking. I do not know the secrets, but their pies come out of the oven without excessive grease or weight, unlike many versions you will find.



During the course of the day, fresh pies are made from scratch as needed, so you will never find a byrek sitting around for long. Each one is cut into four slices, so there is a 25 percent chance they will need to make a new pie when you order if the previous one is gone. It is worth the 10-15 minute wait, though, as the slice fresh from the oven is a place close to heaven.

In addition to these, the kitchen makes a range of dishes to fill a small steam table each day, and serves hearty lunches. Most of the customers I saw during visits here worked nearby; many had come in for the first time, curious about the prospect of a new meal. Two small tables in the front offer space for a few people to eat, but many take their bounty to go. Foods on the steam table can include tasqebap, a rich oily beef stew that was called “Albanian goulash” when I inquired about the name; or fasule, another hearty soup of white beans and bits of meat. Usually there is at least one type of tavë, a baked casserole traditionally made of soured milk. This thick cream was described to me as similar to bechamel, but upon eating it, it was obvious this comparison was only made due to the fact that I cannot speak Albanian. The yogurt and eggs used to make this do not remind you of the mother sauce from France.


The food is all rib-sticking and genuinely tasty, but even more enjoyable here is the pleasure taken from being their guest. On my first visit, a tablecloth was even laid down for me before I dined alone. As I ate my lunch between the cured meats and cheeses in the counter refrigerator and some stacked shelves of teas and snacks, it was not hard to feel like royalty when they took such care. There is no pizza here, but you will not miss it at all after your first bite of their byrek.

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Albanian Grocery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato