Balkan Mercies

This week my travels led me to Charlottesville, Virginia’s new Balkan Bistro & Bar. Charlottesville used to be home. It’s where my wife and I met, fell in love, and married. We have been away for nearly ten years, though, and every time we come back, Charlottesville disorients: ceaseless traffic, tentacular sprawl. A few dear friends remain, but we have to face facts. We are guests now.

On a sweltering summer afternoon, I stopped at the Balkan Bistro, the creation of a family of refugees from the former Yugoslavia: Panto and Bozana Cetic, their daughter Anja Andelic, and Anja’s husband, Jozo. They know how to receive weary travelers, and their food possesses a refreshing, elegant simplicity: homemade breads and pastries, locally sourced meats and vegetables, local and imported beer and wine. It opened less than two months ago.

Tuesday’s meal was one of the best of my life: an appetizer of flat bread and ajvar (a versatile Balkan eggplant- and tomato-based spread); a bottle of Karlovacko, a honeyed Croatian beer; a large spinach and cheese pie (burek), fresh from the oven, with a light, flaky phyllo crust; and the best baklava I will ever have, also straight from the oven (I had a second, leftover piece the next day, and it was just as good).

Here’s hoping that Charlottesville, in its headlong rush toward the elusive, has eyes to see the gifts and graces already there. May the Balkan Bistro, and its fine owners, have a long, healthy life.

The Balkan Bistro and Bar is at 1003 West Main St. in Charlottesville. For more about Panto, Bozana, Anja, and Jozo, see this 2009 article in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress and this recent writeup in Charlottesville’s The Hook. A dollar from every dish sold goes directly to Women for Women International, an organization that assists survivors of wars worldwide.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
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9 Responses to Balkan Mercies

  1. Samir says:

    Tom,
    Great article and great food! You captures the flavor of the place and make mouths water for the great food experience. If I may suggest you can write also about your recent visit to Chicago ( or you have to revisit again ). Thank you

  2. Tom Simpson says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Samir! Yes, definitely, I will have to write about Kiko’s and Restaurant Sarajevo. That will give me a good excuse to come visit you and eat that wonderful food again….

  3. Rick Simpson says:

    Hello, Tom and Samir,

    I’m Tom’s dad. I just want to report that based on Tom’s entry, I made ajvar yesterday for the first time, using a recipe I found on the Internet. This was the straightforward version: roasted peppers, eggplant, and garlic, with olive oil and salt. Delicious! I also found what was labeled a Macedonian version, adding lemon juice or red-wine vinegar and sauteed onions. I’ll try that next.

    We’re absolutely delighted to learn about ajvar and look forward to discovering other dishes from Bosnia and the Balkans.

    Greetings and thanks again,

    Rick Simpson

  4. TalkingLanguages says:

    I find it interesting how people call all pies – burek. In Bosnia (at least where I live and in Sarajevo) burek is considered a meat pie, and what you ate is called zeljanica. Also, there are maslanica (this is practically dough with butter… but still very delicious), sirnica (cheese pie), bundavnjača (tikvenica or bundevara, pumpkin pie) and my favorite krompiruša (potato pie).

    I heard people calling every pie burek only on television, I don’t know where that comes from. However, the point is you enjoyed your pie and as I can read, you sure did.

    • Tom Simpson says:

      Right you are, my friend–I wrote this before I learned more about the differences. Thanks for reading and helping me out!! 🙂

      • TalkingLanguages says:

        You’re welcome 🙂 I wouldn’t have mentioned this if I hadn’t seen so many people making the same mistake. Frankly, I don’t know what people, who don’t eat pies traditionally, eat… I can’t imagine a week without pie! 😀

      • Tom Simpson says:

        Me neither! I have withdrawal when I’m in the US 🙂

      • TalkingLanguages says:

        Maybe you should learn making pie 🙂 We have a rule for young girls here – they can’t marry until they can make a proper pie 🙂 It’s really not that difficult once you get the hang of it.

      • Tom Simpson says:

        I hope the art isn’t lost in the coming generations! You’re right–some of us guys need to “man up” and learn. 🙂

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