Sitting on the corner of Hughes and Crescent Avenue, Çka Ka Qëllu can be found in the Little Italy neighborhood of the Bronx. Having only been open since November 12, 2017, Çka Ka Qëllu has already become a staple of Albanian food in New York City and continues to attract both Bronx locals and outside visitors in search of an authentic Albanian meal. The owner, Ramiz Kukaj, is certainly not new to the restaurant industry. Mr. Kukaj has had his fair share of business startups that were all immensely successful; however, Çka Ka Qëllu is not just any of his other businesses. It is a symbol of Albanian patriotism and a beautiful culture that refuses to be forgotten.
Immediately after walking into the restaurant, the decor strikes a nostalgic and pleasant feeling for Albanian customers. Diners find themselves seated in wooden chairs amidst a rustic-styled eatery. Around them are various pieces of memorabilia and artifacts–ranging from the Çifteli, an Albanian guitar, to hand-woven ethnic clothing worn by our Albanian forefathers for hundreds of years. The ceiling of the restaurant is lined with intricate light fixtures, each giving off a warm glow that makes customers feel as if they are at home. Pete Wells, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, comments that “the restaurant is soaked in nostalgia” and that its “floors and walls seem to have been airlifted from an Albanian farmhouse” (Wells). The nostalgia, however, is not limited to the scenery of this restaurant but is carried also by the great warmth that radiates from the oven full of ethnic Albanian food. The mouth-watering smells of the cuisine tie together the atmosphere of this traditional Albanian restaurant. The restaurant’s stone facade and outdoor artifacts give character to the sidewalk both day and night, catching the eyes of all who pass, including myself.
When directly translated to English, the phrase “Çka Ka Qëllu” means nothing, but in Albanian the phrase represents the principle of giving all that is left and treating visitors as your own blood. The Albanian people are people of honor and despite often having lived in poverty in their country of origin, they never fail to offer all that they had to those who come their way. In an interview conducted by Danielle Lehman, a journalist for Tableside Magazine, Ramiz Kukaj explained, “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” (Kukaj).
Ramiz was set on applying this principle to his business and has done just that. After migrating to the United States nearly twenty-nine years ago, it seems that Mr. Kukaj is finally living his dream by bringing his home country to the United States. His years of hard work in the cleaning industry led to him becoming the foreman of the same company he started with. Regardless of the obstacles that have come his way, Mr. Kukaj has persevered and is living the American dream that many like him strive to achieve.
His restaurant acts as a setting for social gatherings for Albanians living both near and far from Arthur Avenue. Despite its reputation among some diners of simply being an eatery, Çka Ka Qëllu has come to mean much more to Albanian immigrants. Many of them abandoned their roots when migrating to the United States and now view the restaurant as a home away from their homes overseas. Like many others, I feel overwhelmed with emotions when dining at Çka Ka Qëllu, feeling as if I am sitting with my late grandfather in a small cottage on a mountain top in Montenegro. I never thought that a simple restaurant could evoke these emotions, but it happened and I can say with confidence that I have never felt something like this before. This place acts as a platform for building new friendships through the things people have in common, and settings like this are exactly what give life to the communities of newcomers that roam the area in search of somewhere to feel at peace. Çka Ka Qëllu is more than a restaurant; it is a model of what immigrant communities rely on to feel at home in a country that is very different from the regions they come from.
Despite having been praised by numerous news outlets, this restaurant deserves even more recognition for what it has accomplished. Beyond serving delicious Albanian food, Ramiz Kukaj has created a setting that offers a sense of relief for people who find themselves working as hard as humanly possible to lead better lives than those of their families in their countries of origin. Çka Ka Qëllu has done its best to combat the cultural differences and language barriers that immigrants face. Christina Nuñez, an editor for the Global Citizen, discusses the biggest challenges that immigrants and refugees face in the United States, adding that “most of them had such basic desires: to have their children succeed in school and to be able to put a roof over their heads. After everything they had already been through, they were doing all that they could to keep their families afloat in this new, scary place” (Nuñez). Mr. Kukaj’s use of Albanian artifacts, cuisine, and menus titled with Albanian writing gives a sense of comfort that succeeds in eliminating these feelings of fear by creating an accepting environment for all who visit.
I feel indebted to the place personally as I had a breathtaking experience the first time that I myself dined in. For the first time in my life, I, along with my father who joined me for what we thought would just be a quick meal, felt as if I were back in his home country. This is exactly what Çka Ka Qëllu means to the Albanian community. This amazing spot is now a nook that many ethnic Albanians travel to when they want a taste of their roots and, without a doubt, Mr. Kukaj and his dedicated staff never fail to deliver a home-cooked meal that brings people back to simpler times. Despite only existing for slightly less than four years, Çka Ka Qëllu has settled into the Bronx Little Italy neighborhood with ease. Ramiz Kukaj has, in the eyes of many of his guests, created a “Little Albania” where those who share similar stories can not only exist in peace, but also build new connections with those who are sharing the same struggles. To put it simply, Çka Ka Qëllu brings home to us.
Lehman, Danielle. “Albanian Heritage Thriving in the Bronx at Çka Ka Qëllu.” Tableside, 13 Nov. 2019, www.tablesidemag.com/features/albanian-heritage-thriving-in-the-bronx-at-cka-ka-qellu.
Nunez, Christina. 7 Of the Biggest Challenges Immigrants and Refugees Face in the US. 12 Dec. 2014, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/the-7-biggest-challenges-facing-refugees-and-immig.
Wells, Pete. “A Deep-End Albanian Experience, Tucked Into the Bronx.” The New York Times, 12 Mar. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/dining/cka-ka-qellu-review.html.