Albania. Where's that? It's not a country most Americans--let alone Dallas residents--have much familiarity with, and for good reason. Locked into obscurity and solitary confinement throughout most of its history on account of its rugged, mountainous topography, Albania nonetheless has had a tendency to incite violent intrusions. This is because it is embedded in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula and it borders the mouth of the Adriatic Sea, making it a bridgehead into the riches of Europe. Albania served as history's doormat for empires seeking continental conquest. There were the Romans and the Byzantine Empire. Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars, Slavs and Ottoman Turks followed. Then there were the Fascist Italians, the Nazis and the Communists. Because of this, or maybe in spite of it, Albanians call themselves "sons of eagles."
But here's the most important part: Albania is about to be tromped by the heel of Italy's boot. Really. Look at a map. "I'm half and half Albanian and Italian," says Al Berisha, who with his chef brother Jimmy operates Leo's Italian Cuisine in Carrollton. Born in Albania, Berisha has been in the United States for barely five years. Does he miss Albania? Of course, it's his home. OK, maybe not that much. "America, man," he says. "When you come to America, you come for all of the opportunities. You come here, you see what's going on, then you do what you gotta do."
The Berisha brothers have been doing a lot of what you gotta do. In addition to Leo's, they own three restaurants in New Jersey. Plans are on the table to open another Dallas restaurant. "We'll see how this one goes," Al Berisha says.
Leo's Italian Cuisine
Minestrone soup $3.50
Potato soup $3.95
Crab cake salad $8.95
Spinach salad $5.95
Blackened trout $14.95
Rib eye $15.95
Eggplant parmesan $9.95
Fried New York cheesecake $5.95
Leo's menu is based on family recipes composed with Northern Italian influences. The results are mostly satisfying. Potato soup is velvety smooth, so smooth the starchy spud grip has been effectively teased out. There's a pronounced chicken stock richness on the finish, but that's offset by a taming tang, maybe from a shot of lemon.
But rough edges show up, too. The surface of the minestrone soup is mottled with little fat slicks that coat the tongue and sides of the mouth. Broth is tangy, and the bits of carrot, potato, squash and celery are sizable, but it's like getting a message through a set of skivvies dipped in 40-weight motor oil.
Odder still are the mussels billed as cozze Tosscana. The shellfish rest in a puddle of garlic tomato wine sauce aromatized with oregano and freckled with parsley. The sauce behaves like a well-mannered tomato basil soup: tangy, earthy and nurturing with an herbal pique at the back of the mouth. Mussel meat is tiny and sweet--what there is of it. Though the bowl is filled with shells, the mussels are mostly AWOL. Empty shells are tucked into one another and tumble over each other.
What if the Berisha brothers took their lineage literally and made the restaurant a metaphor for their blood? Albanian cuisine is very nearly a carbon of Greek food, heavily imbued with lamb, olives and oregano. But there are lots of local dishes such as byrek (Albanian vegetable pies), kroketa (fried potato cakes) and qofte (meatballs) washed down with vast amounts of beer and skanderbeg, an Albanian brandy, to set if off from the Greeks.
Albanian beer and skanderbeg would work well on Leo's wine list, if there were a wine list. On our visits, the license had just been dispensed, so the stocks were scarce and limited to near-jug versions of California wines. The Chianti had all been drunk by savvier guests.
No matter. The food is not only good; it's devilishly cheap. Salmon in champagne dill sauce is clean, lean and flaky, ringing with tempered richness. Sauce proved an able match, or at least it was skillfully applied, providing a tangy smooth counterpoint that didn't swamp the thin fish strip. Eggplant Parmigiano is respectable, with a breaded eggplant "cutlet" tarped with lots of mozzarella goo and dribbled with a slightly sweet marinara sauce foiled a bit by acid bluntness. A tangle of angel hair off to the side was cooked to adequacy, and the plant itself was well-prepped: framed with crisp edges with no zones of mushiness.
Though the Berisha brothers have been in Dallas only a short time, they have absorbed a good bit of its culture. Not the snakeskin footwear and Dirk jersey kind, but this: rib eye steak--juicy, tender and cheap. Off to the edge of the plate rests a metal ramekin of sauce, a tawny off-green fluid with a thin layer of skin over the surface. It leaves a toffee finish on the palate. It's a secret family recipe that bears close resemblance to a Madeira sauce.
Of course, America being the land of innovation such as aluminum wheels that keep spinning after your Escalade has stopped, there's plenty of room to stretch and improvise, and these brothers take advantage of it. How's this for a distinctive take: crab cake salad? There it is on the edge of the plate, golden and sculpted into a near perfect circle. The romaine leaf heap (no brown wilted edges or rib blemishes) has carrot, tomato and a wheel of peeled orange to serve as a crab cake counterpoint. The cake, more filler than crab (surimi would be an ingredient guess), is slathered in lemon butter sauce--sopped like a kitchen sponge, in fact.
Al Berisha is a distinctive fellow, too. He moves through the room, checking on tables while dressed in a fitted-slacks-and-vest combo, tossing out jested sarcasm and witticisms in carefully chosen but slightly frayed English. What brought you to Dallas? "Airplane," he says. You get the sense that if the Trinity River had been successfully navigated 125 years ago, he would have said "Carnival Cruise."
Leo's is named for Leonardo Da Vinci. On a set of wooden bookshelves off to the side of the dining room are a couple of books by Dan Brown: Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. Below that is an autographed black-and-white picture of boxer Gerry Cooney. The picture is surrounded by wine corks. Leo's plot is thick, and difficult to decipher. Berisha says he got the photo autographed by Cooney when he was in New Jersey. Pretty good for a newly minted Yank from Albania.
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On the other side of the bookshelves is a wooden bar featuring a print of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." Despite its nascent licensing status, the bar is crowded with bottles: sambuca, red wine, liquor. More sure to follow.
Here's an odd thing posted as a special that presumably has nothing to do with Da Vinci or Albania: blackened trout. It's a thin piece of fish darkened with a sauce of no notable racy or assertive traits. No crust. No char. A super-heated cast iron skillet has never kissed this trout. Yet the fish is moist, tender and sweet.
Still, such mistranslations don't squelch the passion these Albanians have for the American spirit of innovation. Take dessert: deep-fried New York cheesecake. This sounds like a crime--if not to cardiovascular health, at least to culture. Cheesecake--custard, crumb crust and all--is stuffed and rolled into pastry tubes and then deep-fried. The tubes are cut at 45-degree angles at one end, while the blunt end is planted on a plate surface. One wades in a bright red strawberry sauce, the other in a dark chocolate sauce about the color the blackened trout should have been. The pastry is warm. The cheesecake is intact. No runny custard. No eroded crumb crust. No cheesecake layers melted, mashed and mangled into hash of unspeakable gore. America: What a country, eh?
1837 W. Frankford Road, No. 130, Carrollton. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. $$