Ever since the group we now call the pilgrims — you know, the ones who roasted turkeys and such for that first Thanksgiving feast — arrived in America in 1620, the concept of an immigrant finding success through serving food has become part of the great American dream. A few notable examples? The first great New York restaurateurs were the Delmonico brothers from Switzerland. Later came Marseilles-born chef Antoine Alciatore (who opened Antoine's in New Orleans). And local legend Fred Harvey left London for the United States in 1850 and later built the first American restaurant chain.
Without knowing any of that history, Kozeta Kreka of Pogradec, Albania, had her own dream. After 12 years in the United States, the dark-eyed entrepreneur — who ran her own candy company in Albania and later managed the Town Topic diner in Mission — wanted her own restaurant. Her family and friends thought she was quite mad when she leased a long-vacant convenience store on West 75th Street, a location so indistinguishable that if you blinked, you'd drive right past it. Even worse, the building was a mess: It needed a grease trap, new bathrooms and a full kitchen. Kreka and her husband put their life savings into turning the modest spot into Cozy's Café.
It's cozy, all right, although the name derives from Kreka's nickname, not the room's intimacy. It's one of the cleanest, tidiest dining rooms in the city and, unfortunately, one of the brightest. In fact, the fluorescent lights are so intense, a friend of mine says he worries, every time he walks in, that he'll be interrogated by the KGB. But, hell, it's a diner. Not a diner in the spirit of Town Topic or even Rob's Café, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago ("Finer Diners," November 12, 2009), but more like the laid-back Greek-owned coffee shops all over New York City.
True, Kreka adheres to certain classic diner standards: She serves breakfast all day (except for the biscuits and gravy — when the kitchen runs out, that's it); dinners typically include a salad, potatoes and vegetables; and the display case is filled with Golden Boy pies.
But Kreka retains a few European traditions, too. She bakes her own flaky baklava. She won't use any bread but Farm to Market. ("In Europe," she insists, "good bread is everything.") And in addition to traditional burgers and patty melts, Kreka serves sandwiches such as the "grilled European," made with cheese, fresh basil, tomatoes, pure Irish butter and honey. It sounds odd but it's delicious.
I learned about Cozy's Café from my friend Peter, who's notoriously tight with a penny. "In this economy," he said solemnly, "it's all about finding comfort in food. And Cozy's serves comfort food. Cheap."
None of the entrées on the dinner menu cost more than 10 bucks; same goes for the daily specials handwritten on a whiteboard at the back of the room. On the night I dined with Lisa and Bob, Lisa ordered the butterflied pork chops listed on the board, and they were terrific. Bob and I stuck with the menu. It described the three-cheese tortellini as prepared with "diced ham and a creamy sauce," which sounded like something from Old Country Buffet. But Kreka insisted that it was her grandmother's recipe from the actual old country. And it was surprisingly excellent, the cream sauce light and supple with only a discreet touch of salty ham.
The menu also informed us that Bob's chicken francese would be prepared with fresh lemon and a "white whine sauce." I thought it was a typo, but Bob whined that he didn't like the dish after a few bites. "The pasta is gummy, and the sauce isn't very good," he complained. I took a couple of bites and whined a little, too. It needs some work, as does the tasty-enough but visually wan spinach quiche.
I stopped in for breakfast one Sunday morning but was too late for biscuits and gravy — the church groups had been ravenous that morning. I had a nice cheese omelette with hash browns and toast for five bucks. I also impulsively ordered a blueberry pancake — a very big blueberry pancake served with maple syrup but no butter. "I cook the butter in the pancake," Kreka explained. An Albanian tradition, I suppose.
Breakfast was accompanied by an eclectic collection of songs playing on one of those big, glittering modern jukeboxes in the corner. I heard Patsy Cline, Tim McGraw, Pam Tillis and Olivia Newton-John singing "Xanadu." Out of self-defense, I poured four quarters into the machine and punched in the numbers for Frank Sinatra's "The Lady Is a Tramp," but I must have hit the wrong buttons because "Xanadu" played again. And again.
When I returned for another dinner, this time with Carol Ann, I dumped in more coins and got Sinatra and, inexplicably, Leslie Gore wailing "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To." Carol Ann looked at me quizzically. "Did you play that?"
The machine's haunted, I told her.
Carol Ann was amused by some of the other eccentricities at Cozy's Café. The water was served in glasses, but my iced tea arrived in a Styrofoam cup — with a lid! — and the lemon slice was delivered in a tiny plastic takeout container. In case I wanted to take it home with me later, maybe?
In any event, Carol Ann was impressed with her dinner: a giant platter with a hefty chunk of tender meatloaf that was fragrant with onion and garlic, along with a big mound of mashers, steamed fresh carrots and green beans, and a slab of garlic toast. "This is enough for two people," she said.
I loved the soothing homemade rice-and-asparagus soup, then ate a patty melt and tater tots. "It's as good as Town Topic," I told Kreka. She looked insulted. "Much better," she snapped. "I use better meat, better bread."
Better tots, too!
After dinner, we split a slice of lemon meringue pie. We wanted baklava, but Kreka had sold out earlier that day. "I'm making it tonight," she told me. "You come back tomorrow. I'm having lasagna tomorrow. Everyone loves my lasagna. So you'll come back tomorrow?"
Who could refuse her? Homemade lasagna and baklava at a diner in Overland Park? It's not just the American dream — it's my dream, too!