Lifelong restauranteurs open Italian café with hints of Latin flavor

March 31st, 2016  |  Published in Melting Pot

Salas Flores slides an unbaked pizza into the wood-burning oven at Acri Café in the Bronx. The restaurant recently opened in November of 2015. Photo: Kailyn Lamb.

Salas Flores slides an unbaked pizza into the wood-burning oven at Acri Café in the Bronx. Photo: Kailyn Lamb.

The new Acri Café sits tucked away in a small, mostly industrial area of Westchester Square in the Bronx. The street is deserted at night, the light from the restaurant a beacon at the end of Commerce Avenue. Here, in the 160-seat restaurant that opened last November, two Eastern European immigrants dish out Italian food with hints of Latin fusion.

The menu at Acri Café features Italian staples such as spaghetti and meatballs, Fettucine Alfredo and pizza from a wood-burning oven. But there are also some specialty items such as fish tacos, empanadas, and montaditos, a dish with green plantains and chicken. Roland Mujaj, one of the owners, wants to cater to his own Albanian community and a neighboring Italian population near Pelham Parkway, as well as large Latin American community in the Bronx. Although neither he nor his business partner, Mike Demaj, grew up on Italian food, they both agreed that it would give them the most success.

Belmont, which is sometimes known as the “Little Italy” of the Bronx, has been an Italian neighborhood since the late 1800s. During the 1920s, Pelham Bay and Belmont began to see the first wave of Albanian immigrants coming into the Bronx. By 2012 The New York Times said that 9,500 people in the Bronx identified themselves as Albanian. The most recent census estimates that more than half of the population of the Bronx is Hispanic or Latino.

Nick Frinquelli Sr., along with his son, Nick Jr., and Joel Mackenzie work at an electrical supply company around the corner from Acri Café and started eating there because it was close and they could be in and out within an hour. Now, Nick Sr. says they come as often as three times a week. “They’re good to us,” he said, and his son and Mackenzie agreed.

Salas Flores cuts a freshly baked pizza. Customers can order pizzas from Acri Café's wood-burning oven in a to-go box.  Photo: Kailyn Lamb.

Salas Flores cuts a freshly baked pizza. Photo: Kailyn Lamb.

Since there are several schools in the area, as well as the United Teachers Federation building, teachers frequently come on their lunch breaks or after school is done for the day. If school is out on break, Mujaj says, the restaurant loses a lot of business.

Since opening, Mujaj and Demaj have been at the restaurant every day to greet customers, answer phones, and serve food. Demaj said that when the restaurant first opened, it was hard for either of them to take time off. Recently however, Mujaj’s brother, also named Mike, joined the team, giving Mujaj and Demaj a little freedom.

Mujaj came to the Bronx with his father in 2004, when he was 16, to join his mother and brother, Mike, who had already come to the U.S. around the time of the 1997 Albanian rebellion. Mike was able to help get Mujaj his first job as a bus boy. Their whole family now lives in the Bronx.

Mujaj’s parents owned a restaurant in Albania, but he said it is not as profitable an industry as it is in the U.S. He said he wasn’t sure he would have worked in their restaurant if he had stayed there. “It’s hard to tell,” he said, “I was 16 when I moved here.”

Demaj had a similar story. In 1995, at the age of 17, Demaj left Kosovo for Germany due to war. He worked in the restaurant business there for two years. In 1999 he moved to the Bronx, continuing to work in restaurants, and met Mujaj while they were both working at an Italian restaurant in the Bronx.

Mujaj and Demaj used their savings to open their first restaurant in 2010, an Italian restaurant in New Jersey called Brunello. After five years of commuting from the Bronx to New Jersey, Mujaj and his partners decided it was too much. They sold the restaurant and began looking at properties in the Westchester neighborhood. Mujaj’s family also operates a stone shop called United Stone in the Bronx that does contract work. The landlord for that building happened to have a vacancy, and leased it to the brothers for 10 years. They spent seven months renovating it, including the construction of a marble bartop and table tops.

During the weekday lunch hours Acri Café still has some quiet hours. But some locals have begun to make it their go-to lunch spot. Photo: Kailyn Lamb.

During the weekday lunch hours Acri Café still has some quiet moments. But some locals have begun to make it their go-to lunch spot. Photo: Kailyn Lamb.

Mujaj estimated that an average of 500 people come in every week, with a bulk of their business happening Thursday through Sunday. On weekends, during their brunch hours, Mujaj says it is not unusual for them to serve more than 100 people, a crowd they’ve built by word of mouth.

Their customers speed the process with social media: The restaurant already has a presence on Facebook and Yelp including multiple reviews, and Mujaj said that some of their patrons came as a result of Instagram posts.

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