Nearly two decades ago, Limoza Hoxha took her first go at Arber Cafe. Coming off an eight-year stint working in the kitchen at the Clayton Italian mainstay Dominic's Trattoria, it seemed natural that she would incorporate that country's fare into her debut restaurant, even as she wanted to use her new platform to shine a light on her native Albanian cuisine. In her mind, and in the eyes of her then business partners, it felt like the safest bet; not only was Italian food wildly popular in her adopted town, but Albanian food was relatively unknown. To have her restaurant's success hinge on something so untested was a risk they were not willing to take, so Arber Cafe opened as a combination Italian-Albanian restaurant and coffee shop in a small storefront off Gravois Avenue in 2005.
Fast-forward 17 years, and Hoxha has transformed Arber Cafe into the restaurant she always wanted. The retooled Arber is a proud homage to the food of her homeland, a culinary heritage Hoxha describes as Mediterranean influenced with strong elements of Turkish and Greek traditions woven throughout. Had you told her in 1997 that this is how she'd find success in the restaurant business, she would not have believed it; now, as guests eagerly order her handmade Albanian delicacies, she's thrilled to be proven wrong.
Hoxha never thought she would be the person to introduce St. Louis diners to Albanian food. After immigrating to the United States from Albania in 1997, she pursued English language and computer design courses at St. Louis Community College–Forest Park. However, after getting a job as a cook at Dominic's Trattoria, she realized how much she loved the professional kitchen. This nascent passion prompted her to refocus her studies on business in the hopes of opening a restaurant one day.
It should have come as no surprise that she had such love for the industry. For years, Hoxha had been praised by her family for her talent as a home cook, a skill she picked up from her grandmother, mother and mother-in-law over the years. Cooking came naturally, so when finally placed in a position to dedicate herself to it full time, she seized the opportunity. That enthusiasm led her to say yes when some friends approached her about buying a Macedonian bakery in the city's Bevo Mill neighborhood and turning it into what became Arber Cafe. After three years, her original partners left the business, leaving the restaurant in Hoxha's capable hands.
Hoxha found success with the Albanian community, who embraced Arber Cafe as a traditional European-style coffee shop.
For roughly 15 years, she chugged along as such, hoping that she could one day turn the spot into more of a food-driven restaurant. In 2019, she and her family made that dream a reality by renovating the place and eschewing the Italian side of the menu.
The newly launched Arber Cafe built a steady momentum through the fall of 2019 and into the beginning of 2020. However, when the pandemic ground the restaurant industry to a halt in March of 2020, Hoxha was forced to close her doors and hope that the support from the local community would keep her afloat. Fortunately, it did. Between to-go orders and a partnership with Schnucks, Hoxha was not only able to remain in business; she was made aware of how much her little cafe meant to the neighborhood.
When you eat at Arber Cafe, you understand why this is the case. Thanks to its small menu, made entirely by Hoxha, the restaurant gives you the feeling of being welcomed into her home kitchen and given a starter course on Albanian cuisine.
Byrek, an essential Albanian dish, is a triangle-shaped, filled-phyllo-dough pastry akin to Greek spanakopita. Hoxha serves three versions: one filled with savory lamb and beef gyro meat, one made with a mild Albanian white cheese the texture of feta, and another stuffed with spinach and mint, which gives the dish a gorgeous verdant undertone.
Ali pash, a traditional Albanian dish, features arborio rice that is somewhere between the wet texture of risotto and a fluffy Middle Eastern-style basmati. Flecked with roasted almonds and raisins and topped with grilled chicken, the dish is a delightful interplay of sweet and savory.
Another classic Albanian dish, the olive salad, has the sort of refreshing briny, citrusy flavors you want in the heat of summer. Kalamata olives are mixed with orange segments and sliced red onions, then tossed in an oregano-infused olive oil. The salt, sweet, tang and earth from the dried herbs create a complex mix of flavors. So do the feta and olive oil that are the dominant flavors in the trahana soup. Made with fermented wheat flour and yogurt that seems heavier than its brothy texture suggests, the soup is infused with the cheese's briny flavor. It has a milky mouthfeel, but a sprinkling of red chili flakes adds heat that cuts through the richness.
Arber offers a chicken gyro that's made with the same succulent grilled chicken that tops the ali pash, and a deluxe version, which features qofte, an Albanian-style meatball. The latter is an outstanding delicacy, reminiscent of gyro meat and the Balkan beef sausage cevapi. The gyro is dressed with the expected accoutrements — tomato, cucumber, red onion, a thick, tzatziki-style yogurt sauce — but what makes it special, aside from the qofte, is that Hoxha griddles the bread, so it gets a crisp, almost-fried golden exterior.
The massive gyro is so delicious it is hard to resist eating the entire thing. However, the dessert case will make you reconsider. Hoxha learned how to make the many pastries that fill its shelves from the prior owner, a Macedonian baker, and she adeptly carries forth his legacy.
Rolled cakes filled with caramel and fluffy pastry cream, slices of white cake layered with whipped cream and toasted almonds and a chocolate sponge cake layered with chocolate mousse all showcase Hoxha's pastry prowess and are satisfying without being cloying or overly rich.
The standout is the zuppa berati, a layered dessert similar to a parfait, which pairs sponge cake with vanilla custard, chocolate custard, whipped cream and toasted almonds. It's like eating a glorious, sweet cloud.
Hoxha still keeps tiramisu on the menu, and it's wonderful. However, one taste of that zuppa berati and you will be so dazzled you won't miss its espresso-flavored Italian cousin. Like Arber Cafe, something this wonderful is enjoyable enough on its own.