The Story

Epic Albanian Food

A mother never made it to America, but her chicken pie did.

By Lindsay Sterling

Portland resident Bill Dilios taught me how to make his favorite dish from Albania, kotopita. It's like chicken pot pie, but with filo crust and an epic story inside. It starts after World War II in a village called Politsani. Bill grew up there in the rocky foothills of a major mountain range separating Albania and Greece. His life as a boy was saturated with fear. A brutal communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, had come to power. And because Bill's father was in the U.S., secret police blacklisted his family. Teachers, doctors, and priests were being thrown into jail, and letters from his father would arrive with money stolen out of them and words covered in black. Bill was constantly pilfering carrots, apples, and walnuts where he could. Government rations were paltry: a quart of oil, a pound sugar, and five pounds of meat per month for four people. Bill watched his mother made filo dough from flour and water, kotopita on special occasions, and yogurt and cheese from their cow's milk. They were lucky if they ate meat once a month.

Now, he's like Jackson Pollock with a butter brush, letting drips fall onto the white sheets like drops of rain. No brushing or fussing. This is not exactly my experience working with filo. Later as we're eating, he explains something to me: "Once you have your freedom, life is easy." I promise myself I'll remember. Life is easy here. It is.

One day Bill's older brother came home beaten black and blue with a broken jaw. By 1957 the family knew they had to escape the country or they would be sent to prison, work camps or killed. They'd tried twice. The first time Bill's mother couldn't make it over the steep high-altitude mountain pass. The second time Bill stayed back, unable to leave his mother behind. This third time, in April, just the brothers went. They packed a gun, shoes studded with nails to help grip the mountain ice, white outfits to camouflage against he snow, and a cooked chicken their grandmother had given them. They got over the mountain pass, hiked all night, and by midmorning were wet with sleet, dizzy with fatigue and unable to see. They nearly stumbled into an Albanian border guard asleep with his machine gun under a tree. Before long, they made it to a beautiful sunny valley. They demanded of a shepherd, pointing their gun at him: "Albania or Greece?" The shepherd said, "Greece." They were free.

Soon Bill and his brother were on a plane to Boston. Bill met his father for the first time at the airport. He picked them up in a maroon Buick and took them back to Portland. They worked at his Greek restaurant, Christy's on Cumberland Ave where Maria's is today. Bill worked there for 17 years, met his wife there, a Mainer, and had three kids who are now all full grown. Today he helps to prepare family recipes at his son's new restaurant, Olympic Pizza and Grille in the Little Dolphin Plaza in Scarborough. Sadly, after he left Albania in 1957, his mother was sent to a work camp and he never saw her again. When I make this pie, I'm going to thank my lucky stars for my liberties in this country, and have a moment of silence for one woman I never knew, but now, whose pie I do.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2009

To see videos of Bill's brother in 2007 in Politsani, showing where Germans, Italians, Albanian rebells fought, hearing village singing, and reliving his escape route, please visit: http://www.politsani.com/video.asp.