For an immersive experience that rivals a trip to Albania itself, we are heading to Çka Ka Qëllu located in the Bronx to talk to founder Ramiz Kukaj. Ramiz was inspired to open the restaurant when his son asked where he could take his friends for authentic Albanian cuisine. In his research, Ramiz came up empty-handed; deciding it would become his life’s mission to bring Albanian cuisine to New York City.
After years of collecting 18th and 19th-century Albanian artifacts to decorate the space, Çka Ka Qëllu is now one of the most unique restaurant experiences in the city. We sat down with Ramiz to hear more about his journey from Albania to opening the restaurant.
Tell us a little bit about Albanian food and the menu at Çka Ka Qëllu.
There is no great secret to our recipes. Of course, we make sure that most of the products are imported from back home. Basically, the recipes are just the way our own families used to cook them many, many years ago. Most of our meats are grilled.
One interesting dish we make is called “Fli”, containing 50 layers of dough – very thin dough that we pat down with a spoon. And there are six different cheeses melted together, and it gets cooked for three hours.
That dish has a history. When we have guests over, we explain to them how it’s made and for how many years that dish has been made. We have quite a few dishes that are simple and made with just flour, water, and cheese. We were raised in poverty, so there were not too many options.
When did you come to the United States?
I came here 25 years ago, and I literally didn’t speak any English. As an immigrant, I was just looking to find a job to do anything. I started working in the cleaning industry as a cleaner. I was very fortunate – lucky to find a job at that time.
I had a very strong work ethic from back home and did very well in the beginning. So after three or four years, I got promoted to the foreman because I learned English very quickly.
That was my priority; to learn English. And the promotions didn’t stop right after that. I’ve been working as a Director of Operations. It is an important position in the company.
And you still work full-time for that company while running the restaurant?
Yes, everybody is very friendly and great. I cannot imagine leaving. I feel like I’d betray them. I am very happy to have been working for them, so I am not about to betray them. At the same time, I find that I have enough time to not betray my ideas and my country and my son, because he’s very involved in this business now.
Tell me about the name, “Çka Ka Qëllu”. What is the meaning behind it?
Every inch of the place; the name itself, the menus, recipes, everything – they had to be authentic. They had to have meaning. The name “Çka Ka Qëllu” is a very old proverb. If I translate it from Albanian to English, it’s going to lose its meaning. But basically, back then while living in poverty, every home did not have much to eat and to serve to guests.
Being that they didn’t have enough and we were poor if a neighbor passed by your house it would be embarrassing if you didn’t invite them in for a coffee, lunch or dinner. This was our tradition; we would always invite people in. We would say, “Come in for bread, salt, and…” we say the heart and love and everything that’s left.
So basically, it’s like “come in for heart, for salt and bread, and whatever we have”.
Where are you hoping to go from here with the restaurant?
I can tell you that when I opened the restaurant, the last thing on my mind was to become a successful businessman. That’s not my urge. I never had that in me. Pride was something that held us together in tough times like wartime and poverty. Us Albanians – pride is something that kept us and moved us. So that’s what’s in me. And when you walk into the restaurant, everything you see is about pride and culture. You are welcomed and served with what we have.
To hear more of Ramiz’s story, check out season Two, Episode Three of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
2321 Hughes Ave Bronx, New York 10458
Images by Alyssa Broadus (@littlefixations)