Pulse: Trends: The Albanians Are Coming!

They’re here, actually. And they’re taking over Philly’s Italian restaurants

“FINE ITALIAN CUISINE” reads the lettering on the maroon window awnings. I’m at Front and Morris in South Philly, where I’m meeting friends at Langostino’s, a 40-seat restaurant shoehorned into a corner rowhouse. Once we’re inside and seated, the chef sends a bowl of grilled calamari to our table, followed by gnocchi that achieve near-weightlessness.

There’s only one strange note. A table of men by the tiny kitchen is speaking to the chef, but they’re definitely not speaking Italian. It’s a language that lands with both feet on the “sh” sound. Then my tablemate, Chris Dmitri, joins the conversation.

Uh-oh. I’ve fallen in with a bunch of Albanians.

So have you, if you like Italian restaurants. Lately, a ton of Italian restaurants have been opened by members of Philadelphia’s growing Albanian community (not to mention a couple of coffeehouses in the Northeast, and innumerable pizza parlors). In Center City, there’s Bellini Grill, Branzino and La Viola, all BYOBs within a block of each other. Over in New Jersey, there’s Trattoria Parma in Pennsauken and, at the Shore, Fontana del Mare in Strathmere. At other restaurants, such as Villa Capri in Doylestown, the owner is Italian — but there are almost always Albanians in the kitchen.

At Langostino’s, the chef-owner is Julian Hublina, a mere lad of 25. He and his cousin Azial bought the place last August — from another Albanian, Andy Lelaj, who’s now chef at Trattoria Parma, which is also owned by an Albanian. Julian left Albania in 1998, when he was 17. He wound up in Philadelphia, where his mother’s sister lives. After finishing high school in Kensington, he got a job as a busboy at Primavera on South Street, and quickly learned the business. So why didn’t he open an Albanian restaurant? “I wouldn’t have much clientele,” he says, sheepishly. “Albanian food is good, but it’s not known.” Whereas Italian cuisine is well-known, to Albanians as well as Americans. The heel of Italy’s boot is only 90 miles across the Adriatic Sea from Tirana, Albania’s capital city.

You can’t blame Julian for getting the hell out. “There is nothing you can do there,” says Jorgo Xhori, a former college professor who came here in 1993. Albania is a small, poor, corrupt Balkan state whose chief export is narcotics. For four decades the people suffered under the hyper-­isolationist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha; Julian remembers having to get up at 3 a.m. to wait in line to buy milk. Communism ended in 1990, but that was followed by utter chaos. The worst was to come: In 1996, virtually the entire country got caught up in pyramid schemes — and when they collapsed, in 1997, there were riots in the streets.

Amidst all that, the prospect of emigrating to America has been “a huge dream,” says Xhori. The State Department has accommodated that dream by operating a special visa lottery. When Xhori, who prepares tax returns, came to Philly a dozen years ago, he knew of only 10 to 15 Albanian families. “Now I have over 1,200 families as my clients,” he says.

It’s only natural that some Albanians would open restaurants — a time-honored way for immigrants to assimilate into American life. Like everyone else, “Albanians have seen the restaurant business as a good step,” says Luan Tota, the chef-owner of Branzino. “Our people are very aggressive — in a good sense.”

They’ll need to be, to compete with all the Italian restaurants that are actually run by Italians. First-generation immigrants have opened terrific little South Philly spots like Cucina Forte and L’Angolo and Tre Scalini. Meanwhile, the old guard lives on. “We just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” says Ed Rubino, who owns Ralph’s. In May, Ralph’s will celebrate its 105th anniversary; the Rubino clan claims it’s the oldest family-owned Italian restaurant in the U.S. And no, they never will sell out to a chain like Buca di Beppo, says Rubino: “That would be like selling your soul to the Devil.”