REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
A not-widely-known fact about Italian restaurants in the Philadelphia area is that the chefs and owners of quite a few of them are not Italian at all but Albanian. For those who may not be aware of it, Albania is a small country (population less than 3 million) just northwest of Greece and a short boat ride across the Adriatic Sea to the boot of southern Italy. It was a part of the Soviet Union until 1990 and is often called the poorest country in Europe.
Since 1990 the schools there all teach Italian, and almost every family cooks Italian food. Many young people who want to become professional chefs go to culinary schools in Italy and/or to get experience in Italian restaurants. In the past two decades quite a few of these Albanian chefs have come to the Philadelphia area to open Italian restaurants. When I asked Andi Lulaj, the Albanian co-owner of Il Villaggio in Cherry Hill, NJ, why Albanian chefs were not opening Albanian restaurants, he said, “Are you kidding? No one would come. But everyone loves Italian food, and the food we grew up with was very similar to Italian food, anyway. It’s Mediterranean cuisine. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh pasta and seafood, etc.”
In addition to Il Villaggio, some of the Albanian-owned Italian restaurants in the area are La Viola, Bellini Grille and La Fontana Della Citta, all in center city; Buona Vita in Somers Point, NJ; Arugula in Huntingdon Valley; Il Polpo in Northeast Philly and Branzino in center city (both now closed); and Tata Cafe and Trattoria Moma, both in Mt. Airy. Interestingly, all of these restaurants are BYOB, largely because of the high cost of liquor licenses for newcomers to the U.S. who are not able to get huge bank loans.
The one we have been to most is Trattoria Moma at 7131 Germantown Ave., which was opened in the summer of 2014 by Bledar Istrefi, 37, who was trained in fine-dining restaurants in Tuscany, Tirana (capital of Albania) and London, England, before immigrating to Philadelphia in 2005. He cooked in three Italian restaurants in the Delaware Valley before opening Trattoria Moma, and he is a human burning bush, afire with passion for cooking.
“Initially, I wasn’t familiar with Mt. Airy,” said Istrefi, “but a dear friend suggested that I consider the location for my own restaurant. I’m glad I listened.
The neighborhood has been supportive of my business, and for that I’m very grateful. We have the same patrons coming again and again back to Moma in addition to some customers from other areas like the Main Line, Fort Washington and Ambler.”
To paraphrase a friend from Texas, if Bledar Istrefi is not one of the finest Italian chefs in the area, then Wednesday ain’t trash pickup day. Nothing is out of his strike zone. We have eaten there at least six times, and it is always drool-worthy. It is small and can be noisy when crowded, but the food is high-end at ridiculously affordable prices. Service has always been pleasant and the courses well timed.
Istrefi’s true north is mining flavors that are natural and pure. His best dishes come with deft grace notes that are light yet vivid. Your dinner starts with complimentary bean puree with olive oil. The wild
mushroom ravioli is a pedestal of fresh pasta with seemingly just-picked mushrooms over a sublime truffle butter sauce ($16). Another vegetarian-friendly entree is the alluring, tender curls of fettucini with the heady essence of eggplant levitating over the textural sensation of zucchini, sundried tomatoes, fresh pesto and fresh mozzarella ($15).
One could quickly become addicted to the velvety risotto married to muscular porcini mushrooms in a creamy cheesy sauce ($16). So many entrees are under $20, it’s like playing with house money. If I had to say something negative, it’s that the breads are rather pedestrian, but the template of Istrefi’s cooking is thoughtful presentations built around quality ingredients. There are also homemade, eye-OK desserts, but we never seem to have room for them.
We need more places like this — quirky, unexpected hideaways that are ripe with edgy character and food of real epicurean ambition. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights in August and September, Istrefi also offered four courses for $35, but I do not know if he will continue it. Customers could order anything off the regular menu, and the portions were all the same size as on the regular menu.
There is a huge parking lot across the street attached to the Fit Life Fitness Club, and restaurant customers are allowed to park there for free. For more information, call 267-437-3838 or visit www.trattoriamoma.com