By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Back in Texas, Agron was "Roni," learning the food-service trade and harboring his own ambitions. "Either you're a worker or you're an owner making money," he says. "I worked with my father and with other Albanian guys at various restaurants, before I decided to do something for myself. In the restaurant business you can make a decent living, but you can't feed three families off one restaurant."
Feeding a family is high on his list of priorities; his second daughter was born several months ago, and his first is 3 years old. Although he plans to introduce the Balkans to his children through frequent visits, as his father did, he is becoming unabashedly Americanized.
"I want to let them [his children] grow up in the American way," he says. "Our whole family lifestyle, I guess you could call it American."
Since the opening of the pizzeria by Luigi Sulejmani's cousin in 1979, nearly 90 Albanian-owned restaurants have opened in the DFW area. The story of the Albanian domination of the pizza business explains a lot about how the community sprang up here and thrived while remaining bound tightly together, despite creeping Americanization.
Dallas has a network of support for new arrivals, including no-interest bank loans between Albanian owners and an understanding that any new Albanian-owned restaurant needs to be more than a mile away from another. Every month or two, new accounts for Albanian-owned restaurants are opened with Lisanti Foods of Texas, which dominates the sales of pizza supplies to them.
There's a reason most Albanian eateries in Dallas buy their ingredients from Lisanti. In order to keep a lock on the market, Lisanti has worked hard to keep its clients happy and loyal. In an odd agreement, Lisanti has agreed to redirect 6 percent of the money it makes selling supplies to a local Albanian organization called the Dardani Group.
"It is strange for an industry to do this. We don't do it for anyone else," says Kari Sulejmani, office manager of Lisanti's of Texas and Roni's wife of almost five years. Their relationship started as customer-supplier but evolved into husband-wife. "You're basically paying them to be our customers."
The Dardani Group not only uses its network to get better prices from Lisanti, it invests in the stock market and devotes a portion of its funds to operate the Albanian American Community Center in Carrollton. The center serves as a mosque for the Muslim Albanians and a meeting place in times of celebration and fear. "We meet there once a month, but when tensions arise we try to meet there more often," says Feti Staraveci, owner of Alfredo's Pizza in Carrollton and the man at the helm of the Dardani Group. "We've been meeting a lot lately, about once a week."
Topics at meetings these days range from Macedonian violence to stock market upheavals, which have sunk Dardani Group investments into the red. More important, the meetings serve as a vital pipeline of unfiltered information about the Balkans, relayed through friends and family there. Staraveci started the Dardani fund in 1991, drawing support from the almost 40 new ethnic Albanian arrivals and from Lisanti Foods, which was also new to the area. By catering to the new Albanian restaurant boom, owner Joe Lisanti got a foothold in the DFW market.
Time, poor performing stocks and a shrinking pizza market have diminished the Dardani Group's popularity. Active members in the group are losing interest, according to Staraveci, and the enrollees are dropping off. Still, even though the official cohesive power-buying group may be floundering, more informal ties between ethnic Albanians remain strong. The practice of lending money to start-ups or troubled businesses still continues, as does the courtesy of establishing a competing restaurant at least a mile away from another Albanian-owned one. "There are so many people coming here and just so many good areas to move into," Staraveci says. "We try to respect each other's business."
These pizza places are the bedrock of the Albanian community here. It's where you'll find the beating heart of Albanian nationalism in first-generation immigrants.
Brother's Pizza, located in the Abrams-Forest shopping center, could be excised and transplanted to some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, and most small ones. The walls are lined with black-and-white images of industrial New York, those same images of the Flatiron building and waterfront docks that are somehow meant to convey a legitimate pizza experience. Business is brisk, and one year the pizza was declared by The Dallas Morning News to be the "Best in Dallas."
The décor may be typical, but the owner is not. Qemal Vraniqi, the stout and bald-headed owner of the pizzeria, looks like a man cast as the blacksmith in a bad medieval movie. To talk with him about the Balkans requires patience and unremitting agreement with his analysis of history, politics and justice. A conversation with him turns into a diatribe including, in no particular order: notable Albanians in world history, superior household customs of Albanians, the godlessness and profanity used by Serbs, the courage of Albanian-bred dogs, colonization of other planets, bias in the U.S. press against Albanians and obscure roads in Europe built by Albanians. His is the face of ethnic Albanian nationalism.