The front desk clerk at my hotel didn’t hesitate a moment when I asked if she could recommend a good restaurant in Tirana.
“Oda Restaurant,” she said. “You will love it.”
Off I went, without even asking what type of cuisine they served. My GPS soon showed that I was close. I was debating whether to turn down a narrow alley that ended in darkness when a jowly street vendor whistled and nodded toward a second lane, a bit further down the street. This one was brighter, but I saw nothing other than an unassuming little house with wooden tables on the front porch, beyond which were sterile-looking apartment buildings. A young boy with saucer eyes stopped kicking his soccer ball and looked at me curiously, no doubt wondering why I had wandered into the bowels of his neighborhood.
“Oda?” I asked. I spun around when he pointed behind me and realized the old house was what I had been looking for. A young woman sitting on the porch, who had been watching the scene play out, smiled broadly and ushered me inside.
Argita Prifti brought me a menu and showed me which items were vegetarian. “The stuffed eggplant and stuffed peppers are both very good,” she said. I asked about the rice balls, but she again gently recommended the eggplant and peppers. I got the point. “Which would you choose?” I asked. “I can make you one of each if you like,” she offered. I liked.
While I waited for my food to arrive, Argita took me on a tour of the restaurant.
“This is a traditional Albanian house, built in 1930. My father bought it and, in 2005, opened a restaurant in it. He did not remodel the house, because he liked to be surrounded by the familiar, which is why he insisted upon an authentic Albanian menu. He was an actor and he wanted a place where all his artist friends – poets, writers, singers, actors – could gather to have something to eat and drink while they sang and played traditional folk music.”
Her father has since passed on, but Argita and her mother, Thellenza Prifti, still run the restaurant. They have changed nothing. “The spirit of my father is still here, so we honor his wishes,” declared Argita. Today the “living” and “dining” rooms provide seating for customers, who have a view down the tiny galley kitchen where all the food in prepared. Homemade rakia (a very strong fruit liqueur) is made in a copper still that sits in an attached, outside kitchen. Even the toilet, a traditional squat affair, is still located outside the main house.
I followed my nose back into the old house and sank down into plush pillows on a low wooden bench built into the wall. When my food appeared on the low round table in front of me, I dug in and didn’t stop until I had devoured the last scrap. In addition to the stuffed eggplant and peppers, I wolfed down hunks of fresh bread dipped in homemade soft sheep’s cheese, baked and topped with roasted peppers. I washed it all down with herbal tea, sweetened with local honey.
About the time I thought I would burst, Argita brought me two rice balls to try, as well as a bowl of raw sheep’s cheese so I could taste the difference between the baked and raw varieties. Had I been a meat eater, I have no doubt she would have offered me samples of tripe (calf and lamb intestines), liver in cheese, head of lamb, or goat meat.
Today, Oda is the only restaurant in Tirana with a menu that is entirely traditional Albanian food, and it should be a mandatory stop for anyone planning to visit Albania’s capital city.