Albania, the small Balkan nation just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, is a powerhouse on the Texas pizza scene. If you’ve gotten takeout around town, you’ve probably tasted the Albanian touch. One Fort Worth restaurant even offers Albanian Pizza, with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and peppers.
To find out why the influence of immigrants from one small country is so huge, we talked to Maggie and Tony Hajro, two of the original founders of Dallas’ Albanian pizza empire. Tony opened his first pizza place in 1984, in Lewisville. For the last 17 years, his wife and sons have operated Tony’s Pizza & Pasta in The Colony while he enjoys semiretirement.
The story traces back to Albania’s tempestuous history in the 20th century, including the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the political instability following his death, and the regime’s ultimate collapse. Albanians saw Italy as a symbol of Western economic opportunity, watched Italian television as an act of rebellion, and migrated when they could. In March 1991 alone, 25,000 Albanians arrived in Italy. The war in Kosovo launched a new wave of refugees, many of whom found jobs in the Italian service industry. A similar story lies behind some other Texas pizzerias, such as the Eddie’s Napoli’s chain, created by Montenegro-born Enver “Eddie” Kolenovic.
But Tony Hajro’s story started earlier, when he moved to Rome in 1974. He began working in Roman pizza restaurants and then moved to New Jersey and cooked pizza there.
“In New Jersey, I was working with some people in restaurants, and one of the cooks goes, ‘Man, the economy is booming in Texas,’ ” Hajro recalls. “All we knew about Texas was cowboys. I go, ‘Texas? Cowboys?’ He goes, ‘No, it’s booming!’ When I came to Texas I didn’t see any cowboys! I didn’t see any horses! Very different from the movies, because that’s the only thing I knew.”
“All we knew about Texas was cowboys.”
Hajro says that in 1982, he counted just six Albanian families in the Dallas area. Now, the community is big enough to celebrate Albanian Independence Day at the Gaylord Texan Resort. This year’s festivities attracted 1,200 guests. So many attendees own restaurants that the festival was held on Thanksgiving Day, the one day when all the pizza places are closed.
Although Hajro tasted his first pizza after moving to Rome, he says that the Balkans are pizza-obsessed now. When we spoke by phone, he was visiting family in Macedonia. “Everywhere you turn around, there’s a pizza place. Every place you go, there’s a pizza.”
This story originally appeared in the February issue of D Magazine with the title “The Secret in the Sauce.” Write to [email protected].