I planned to meet Zio at 593 Crescent Avenue in the Belmont section of the Bronx. This was just off Arthur Avenue, also known as the Little Italy of the Bronx. But I wasn’t making the trek for Italian food; the area is also an enclave for Albanians, Bosnians and Kosovans. I wanted the Albanian equivalent of pizza, known as a burek and Djerdan Burek was, according to Google maps, just a half block from Roberto Paciullo’s place, Roberto’s, and the planned destination for our consumption of bureks.
“I’m bringing the Colonel,” Zio said over the phone on the morning before we were to meet.
It was no problem with me if he brought the Colonel, his long time companion, and the mother of his children, though for some reason he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it.
When I arrived at 593 Crescent Avenue, my enthusiasm waned as well, but not because we would be dining with the Colonel. Instead of being greeted with the smell of freshly baked bureks, I was confronted with the odor of hair tonic from Bato’s Professional Barber Shop. I peered inside hopefully thinking that maybe the bureks were sold in the back of the barber shop, but from what I could see through the window, there was no food at Bato’s.
I knew there were bureks not too far from Crescent Avenue. I even noticed a “burek” sign in a window a block from Fordham Road when I was driving into the neighborhood. So Zio, the Colonel and I decided to head in that direction.
We strolled past Randazzo’s Seafood, Dominick’s Restaurant, Roberto Paciullo’s other place, Trattoria Zero Otto Nove, Ann & Tony’s Restaurant (“Five Generations”), and the Arthur Avenue Baking Company, before arriving at Tony & Tina’s Pizzeria.
Inside the small pizzeria, we glanced at the assemblage of phyllo dough stuffed pies behind the counter known as bureks. And then we turned our attention to the pizza, garlic knots and calzones on the other side of the counter. Zio’s jaw drooped slightly as he stared at the wan, cold, cheese-congealed pizza. “Is that what an Albanian pizza looks like?” he asked incredulously.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been to Albania.”
We went for the combination platter of bureks; cheese, meat, spinach and a spiral shaped one stuffed with sweet pumpkin. As we were about the dig in, the Colonel got a phone call.
“Sorry, I have to take this,” she said, walking out of the pizzeria, cell phone in hand.
“Should we wait?” I asked
“Are you kidding?” Zio scoffed, and quickly began to devour one of the meat bureks.
I was a little hesitant.
“She’ll end up just taking a few bites, anyway,” he garbled with his mouth full of phyllo dough.
The Colonel was outside, leaning against a parked car, cell phone attached to her ear. I decided to take Zio’s advice and began eating.
All the bureks were flaky and fresh; the cheese mild but not too dense, while the spinach was fragrant with onion. The ground meat in the meat burek had just enough grease to slightly absorb into the pie dough.
The Colonel returned. “That was my friend M,” she said. “She’s almost 10 centimeters dilated.”
“Uh huh,” Zio muttered disinterestedly, his mouth now stuffed with a cheese burek.
The Colonel took a tiny bite of each and then bagged the rest.
“What did I tell ya,” Zio said.
I tried to answer, but I felt a tickle in my throat. I drank some water. The tickle was still there. I coughed and then took another sip of water. I coughed again. A miniscule flake of phyllo dough was caught in my windpipe. I coughed once more. The flake finally dislodged.
The Colonel took her bag of nibbled bureks, and the three of us walked back down Arthur Avenue, Zio stopping briefly at Umberto’s Clam House, where a sign said:“Bus tours are welcome.”
“Didn’t they used to sell live chickens here?” Zio asked.
“They did,” I said. “I once wanted to buy one, but they told me you needed to order it at least a day in advance so they could kill the bird and then clean it up.”
Zio stared at the colorful sign proclaiming Umberto’s many happy hour specials. He shook his head. “Isn’t Umberto’s where Joey Gallo was whacked?” he asked.
“Yeah, but that was at the original on Mulberry Street,” I replied.
He continued to stare and then shook his head. “I liked it better when it was a chicken place,” he said. And then we continued our walk through the Little Italy of the Bronx.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.