Celebrating Albanian culture in the Bronx’s Little Italy

albanian fair
Grupi Barbana from Staten Island performed traditional Albanian dances at last year’s Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu fair in Little Italy. This year, the fair will celebrate its third iteration on Sunday, May 19 from noon to 6 p.m.
Photo EleniMPhotography

The Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu Fair is back for its third year in the historic enclave of the Bronx’s Little Italy. On May 19, more than 100 organizations and businesses will come together to support and celebrate Albanian history and culture with food, music and performances.

“Our cultural importance to the Bronx — the best way that it could possibly be manifested, is through this type of street fair,” said a spokesperson for the Albanian American Open Hand Association, the fair’s organizer and a food pantry in the Bronx serving hungry families since 2014. “And so, what better way to honor this type of event than doing it under the name of our national hero?”

Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu was a nobleman, a military commander and defector of the Ottoman army. In the mid-15th century, he formed his own fleet of soldiers to battle the Ottoman Empire and its occupation of Albania. For 25 years, Skenderbeu kept his opponents at bay. And while he didn’t end the empire’s rule, his perseverance, fortitude and pride was recognized by the people of Albania, solidifying his place in history and in their hearts.

In 2022, the neighborhood celebrated the street co-naming of Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu Way at the corner of Adams Place and Arthur Avenue.

“He’s like our George Washington,” said Vera Mjeku, from Albania, whose husband, Ismer Mjeku, from Kosovo, runs Bato Coffee and Wine at 610 Crescent Ave.

In addition to coffee, Bato Coffee and Wine shop on Crescent Avenue also serves charcuterie platters featuring traditonal Balkan meats and cheeses.Photo ET Rodriguez
Arben Dushaku, dressed in the fedora, is the owner of Trim Haus barbershop, which also serves as a meeting place for Albanian men in the neighborhood.Photo ET Rodriguez

The rustic coffee shop, which also serves charcuterie boards with traditional Balkan meats, came to Little Italy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Ismer Mjeku has been in the neighborhood for decades with his nearly 30-year-old marketing and public relations company next door to the coffee shop.

From 1992 to 1997, Ismer Mjeku worked for Ilyria, the only bilingual Albanian/American newspaper in America at the time. While there, he noticed a need for connecting Albanian American businesses when he realized he couldn’t find them in the phone book. Inspired by the Jewish Yellow Pages, the Albanian Yellow Pages were born.

“Because at that time there was no internet, no social media,” he said.

The publication still exists online, with thousands of entries covering Albanian businesses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Today, at least 60 of those businesses can be found in the Belmont neighborhood alone, according to Ismer Mjeku.

Albanians have been living alongside Italians long before they arrived to the Bronx. In fact, it is because of their history that they settled where they did.

A bust of Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderb and an image of Queen Teuta of Ilyria, who fought the Sicilian army in A.D. third century, gracethe Eastern European restaurant, Teuta Qebaptore. The restaurant on E. 186th Street has been serving locals for two decades.Photo ET Rodriguez

From the early 1400s to the early 1900s, the Turkish Ottoman Empire had an on-and-off reign over Albania and its neighboring countries, forcing its citizens to flee, mainly to southern Italy. Over centuries, the two cultures fused, forming a new ethnic group called the Arbëreshë, also known as Italio-Albanians.

After nearly 500 years of occupation, Albania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire, with support from Italy who would later occupy the country during WWII. Corruption and political unrest in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s caused citizens to flee yet again, resulting in a large wave of Albanian migrants to the U.S., with many settling in NYC, more specifically, the Bronx.

“The usual pattern of immigration is that the immigrants are looking for people that they feel comfortable with — but there were no Albanian neighborhoods,” said Lloyd Ultan, Bronx historian emeritus, history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a Bronx resident for 87 years. “Well, they know the Italians better than anybody else – and so one of the Italian neighborhoods obviously is Belmont and they started moving in and therefore, they attracted more Albanians.”

As Albanians continue to move into the area, build families and work jobs at Italian restaurants, the neighborhood is moving away from Little Italy and toward Little Albania. Arben Dushaku, owner of Trim Haus barbershop which also opened in the wake of the pandemic, estimates the neighborhood is about 80% Albanian.

Manager, Agon Alija, works tirelessly pumping out pizza of all sizes at the Albanian pizza chain, Proper Pizza. The Arthur Avenue location is the only one in NYC.Photo ET Rodriguez
The crust of Proper Pizza, a chain established in Albania in 2002, is sharing its signature sesame seed crust with the people of Belmont.Photo ET Rodriguez

“We are proud that we have the largest Albanian population outside of Albania,” said Mayor Eric Adams during an Albanian Independence Day ceremony at Gracie Mansion in November 2022.

The event was coincidentally catered by Alexandra Lulaj, owner of Dua Market which operates inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. “Dua” means “love” in Albanian and their signature zeppoles, which will be available at Sunday’s fair, are sure to warm your soul.

Even the pizzerias are Albanian-owned, like Tony & Tina’s, Ivana’s and Proper Pizza, all on Arthur Avenue.

Proper Pizza, a chain from Albania established in 2002, opened its doors to the neighborhood last year. The franchise has expanded globally, making the location on Arthur Avenue the only one in NYC.

Proper only serves freshly made pies and can be gotten in one of four sizes ranging from the 8-inch mini to the gargantuan 24-inch party pie. The emphasis is more on cheese than sauce, using a “special Proper cheese” which manager Agon Alija confirmed is caciocavallo, and the crust is crunchy with a fistful of sesame seeds.

But the real distinguishing factor here is the tuna fish pie.

“People order it,” said employee Emigena Delija.

The pizza shop is excited for the fair and anticipates a huge turnout. Last year, approximately 5,000 people came to the intersection of Crescent and Arthur avenues where the fair will be celebrated from noon to 6 p.m.

One of the key components of this year’s events will be the children student groups performing traditional Albanian songs and dances.

“They’re all first, second and third generation Albanian American Children that are born in the United States — and they’re willing to participate in this program by expressing the culture of their parents and their grandparents,” said a spokesperson for the Albanian American Open Hand Association. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful events that the community definitely has.”

A flyer hangs inside an Albanian-owned business in Little Italy advertising the Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu fair.Photo ET Rodriguez

Reach ET Rodriguez at etrodriguez317@gmail.com. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes