Çka ka Qëllu serves a Balkan menu in a beautiful old-world setting

When I told people I had plans that night, the question, “Where are you going this time?” really puzzled me. I had taken on the mission to explore the new Albanian restaurant in Stamford, yes, but as I said its name, I realized, cutting the throttle to my usual gleefully motoring mouth. Faced with silence and a blank stare in response, friends may have thought I was dodging them or maybe having a stroke.

Albania: Over the Mediterranean, over Greece, Western Civ class notes clicked in my head, Skanderbeg and the Ottomans, Hoxha and its casemates, the Alps and the beaches, the dreadful 90s. I knew nothing food. My ignorance was blank. I had to know.

This desire to bring his country’s food to an area where even knowledge of its existence had not taken root was the guiding principle that led owner Ramiz Kukaj to open his first establishment, on Hughes Avenue in the Bronx, five years earlier. Another in Manhattan preceded his most recent, at the former location of Bar BQ on Clark Street in Stamford, the current home of Çka ka Qëllu, pronounced “SHKA-ka kwill-OO.”

“It all started when my son 13 years ago was dating a girl and asked her if there were any Albanian places he could take her to, and I realized I didn’t have to. suggest,” Kukaj tells me. “I thought I had to change that, for something like this to happen. Many Kosovar Albanians came here in the 90s and 2000s after the war, and I wanted to share our experience and culture with Americans.

Kukaj envisioned a space where cultural artifacts were displayed in the space next to food, “so when other people’s children asked them the same question, they had an answer.”

“I left my country when it was burning, I left dreams behind me, being a photographer. I wanted to bring back objects that have survived, bring back my memories.

Çka ka Qëllu, then, is not just a restaurant, it is a repository – an outward expression of Kukaj’s inner self. “We have always been a poor country and our dishes were never refined. If you wanted flour, you had to grow crops; if you wanted milk or meat, you had to raise animals. I put together recipes the way we used to eat before.

Kukaj, with no formal culinary training, continues to work in real estate and tells us it took him 11 years of tweaking to develop his menu.

He was inspired to place his first out-of-state restaurant in Stamford because it was the final home of photographer Gjon Mili, the photographer of Life which produced iconic images of Pablo Picasso, among others. Kukaj wanted to be in the culture where one of his idols had lived. He says the low-rise buildings of Stamford felt like home, a mini-Europe, more so than New York. He fall in love.

My mind can still see the bartenders on trapezes and boogie boards bolted to the wall at the old Hula Hank’s, or the raw wood of Bar BQ when I enter the space at Çka ka Qëllu, but you won’t probably not, because it’s been completely transformed. Artifacts found by Kukaj in antique markets in Albania rest in glass, museum-like display cases. A mannequin in traditional dress stands guard inside the doorway, keeping plaster eyes on a carved pipe, a chillum and several flintlock pistols.

“Pipes are very important because they are status symbols,” says Kukaj. “Each village had a wise old man whom people visited for advice, and tobacco was part of the tradition of respect. The pistols and popular 19th century law books you will see have the same symbolic and practical significance.

While the words on the menu can be hard to pronounce, the simplicity of the dishes lends familiarity. Many are various combinations of meat, dairy, rice, and peppers. The bërxolë Dukagjini (say “dooka-genie armbandand you’ll be close) is a pounded, seasoned, and aged filet mignon folded over four different cheeses that are melted together in the cooking process. Dukagjini is a town famous for producing Kosovar Albanian warriors throughout history, and the dish is a local preparation.

I order a Peroni, my dining companion a lemon martini, and we start with ajvar (“aye var”), the only dish that is immediately familiar to me. This ajvar, made in Kosovo according to Kukaj’s recipe, slowly roasted at low temperature for more than 10 hours, is almost exclusively made with red peppers and olive oil, slightly sweetened, with hints of onion. It is served with two soft and crispy rounds of Samuna bread. With fluffy white centers blowing steam, these yeast breads are homemade every time an order of ajvar is fired. A little butter or oil softens the crust while you tear off the pieces and pinch the spread. Tasty and addictive, the dish would make a great tapas-bar-style snack to be taken with drinks. My companion loved the bread and, remembering out loud that it was his first course, finally pushed it away with a sad look.

Dips, soups and small plates of pancakes and savory dumplings can be ordered à la carte for individuals or at the table, but my eyes are squarely on the dishes cooked a la carte. tavaclay plates and bowls like topless tajine. I order stuffed peppers from the shelf, and she gets sarma: a stuffed cabbage leaf stuffed with a mixture of rice, ground veal, herbs and tomato, cooked in a bed of the same.

My stuffed peppers are a variation of the same ingredients, in the stuffed peppers, according to Kukaj, they are reminiscent of Italian long peppers, tava filled with a buttery paprika soup. Digging in, I notice that most of the heat from the greenish peppers has been cooked through, but there are plenty of spices and herbs left to take their place. I alternate sipping the soup and taking bites of the pepper/rice/meat mixture, which is topped off with a dollop of yogurt sauce and grated parsley.

Both unusual in preparation but with familiar flavors, the dishes are accessible to anyone trying them for the first time and must feel a bit like home to the Albanian speakers I notice at the surrounding tables. Not having its full of ajvar for now, my partner is using a little leftover to dress her up more sarma.

Sausages, white bean soup and a selection of grilled meats complete the menu. Veal is nearly ubiquitous, a way, Kukaj says, for rural villagers to have both milk and meat.

Desserts are homemade and include baklava, an Albanian version very leches recommended by our server, and parry. Albanian for “sugar piece,” this corn flour cookie looks like a solid pie. Spiced with secret ingredients imported from Kosovo, the parry is drizzled with simple syrup and scattered nuts. It’s intensely sweet, but the spices and nuts make the cookie interesting.

The dinner and staff rhythms are relaxed throughout the evening. It’s by design, says Kukaj. “My restaurants look like indoor castles – doors and antiques – but they are living rooms. You can stay here and be comfortable, no one will ever give you a check unless you ask.

He says it comes from a tradition of poverty in the region. People may not have much, but there is a culture of morality and hospitality. You can still have heart. “For me, it’s a temple for who we are. In the Balkans, we welcome people.

The English translation of Çka ka Qëllu, according to Kukaj: “Enter for what we have.

Çka ka Qëllu
15 Clark Street, Stamford
203-354-0735, ckakaqelluct.com, @ckakaqellu on Instagram
Open every day for lunch and dinner
Wheelchair accessible

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