by Gina Cocchiaro
Fourteen years ago, Bledar Istrefi emigrated from his homeland of Albania to the city of Philadelphia. Albania, an across-the-Adriatic neighbor of Italy, features Italian influence in its cuisine. A lover and devoted student of Italian cuisine, Istrefi, though new to the city, was no stranger to good food. As a teen he started washing dishes in an Italian restaurant. He moved up through the ranks, all the while nurturing a singular vision of opening his own restaurant. When Istrefi arrived in Philly, he recalls a dearth of good restaurants, yet saw the city as fertile ground.
In 2012, Istrefi became a chef-partner at Il Polpo, a seafood-centric Mediterranean restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia; though well-regarded, Il Polpo shuttered after a couple of years. Istrefi’s caution: “You can make the best food ever, but if you are in the wrong spot, you don’t have people to come and eat.” In the summer of 2014, Bledar opened a small Italian BYOB at 7131 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, formerly home to Umbria for more than 20 years. For his first solo venture, Bledar Istrefi had found the right spot.
Trattoria Moma’s chef-owner Istrefi feels very much at home in Mt. Airy; fittingly, from the street, Moma’s exterior reads more residence than restaurant. Istrefi confirmed, “It’s like cooking in a house.” Daily specials are born from the whims of Istrefi’s culinary imagination. Committed to using local ingredients, Istrefi enjoys selecting produce by hand at the market. He may head out to shop with a particular dish in mind, but keeps eyes open for the freshest, most beautiful produce that often inspires a new idea entirely.
Istrefi is grateful for this luxury, that Moma is “not a huge restaurant where you are forced to buy through the phone.” Pasta is made fresh every other day; sausage and cured meats are made in-house, and bread is baked from scratch. Customers can trust that Istrefi employs all his senses in quality control, preferring to see and touch ingredients before transforming them with his team.
As both a chef and manager, Istrefi values long-term relationships. Many of the producers he sourced from in previous projects are the same ones he uses today. “Now that I’ve been here almost five years, I like everything about Mt. Airy,” said Istrefi. Moma’s décor is testament to this affection. Simple yet inviting, bare wooden tabletops and mustard-colored walls feature rotating works by local artists. Trattoria Moma’s kitchen crew is Istrefi’s family. After decades of experience working across many kitchens under different chefs, Istrefi has concluded that “to be a good leader, you must respect your team. Treat them well, treat them fairly.”
First a chef, then an owner, Istrefi has intuited a horizontal management style that he credits for his employees staying in the job. He spoke lovingly of his team, claiming “the most important thing” about being a leader is to “not get disconnected from your team.” For Istrefi, good leadership means giving his team the things he wanted for himself when he worked in their positions. Appreciation means giving raises before being asked for them.
A humble man averse to self-promotion and haughtiness, Istrefi expresses constant gratitude for his achievements and success. For him, while “it’s not easy,” the recipe is “simple. No science involved. Love what you’re doing, have patience … and just keep going.”
Driven by passion, supported by a dedicated team and loyal community, Trattoria Moma is quite literally Istrefi’s dream come true, but you’ll never find him resting on his spoils; for him, the work never ends. “This is my love … this is what gives me adrenaline. When I finish tonight, I think of what I’ll do tomorrow.” I hope very much it will be a plate of fresh pasta for you.
On Tuesday and Sunday nights, Trattoria Moma has one of the best bargains anywhere — a four-course meal from the regular menu, including dessert, for just $35 per person. It’s a cash only deal, and every member of the party must participate to be eligible for the special.
For more information, 267-4373838 or trattoriamoma.com