When Nexhdet Thaqi was a refugee from Kosovo living in Switzerland, he dreamed of life in the U.S.
When Thaqi returned to Kosovo as a soldier to fight alongside Americans to free his country, he dreamed of life in the U.S.
Perhaps that is why today Thaqi is living the American dream at a point in history when many say it no longer exists. He opened his second Luigi’s Italian Restaurant in Harker Heights almost a year ago after seven years of success with the original establishment in Belton.
His brother, Fadil Thaqi, currently runs the Belton location while Nexdhet (pronounced Nej-det) tends to the day-to-day operations of the Harker Heights restaurant.
“It was always my dream to come to the U.S.,” Thaqi said. “Especially during the war. I served with many Albanian-American people who came back to Kosovo to fight against Serbia.”
“I never thought I would actually do it,” he added. “But after the war, everything in Kosovo was destroyed. It was not safe for us there.”
Unfortunately, not all of the Albanian-Americans he served with made it back.
“I lost three friends who were born here,” he said. “Serbia took them and killed them. They found them in mass graves.”
Flees to Switzerland
For years, war shaped life for Thaqi, who is an ethnic Albanian born in Kosovo. When the Serbs started persecuting and killing ethnic Albanians in the early 1990s, Thaqi fled to Switzerland. Although Kososvo lies just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Thaqi actually gained his Italian food expertise in Switzerland.
“Serbians were taking Albanians from the streets, from the school and killing them,” he said. “I refused to join the Serbian army, so I had to go to Switzerland. I worked there as a cook in an Italian restaurant. This is how I learned the business. When the war started in Kosovo, I went back to fight.
“What I have seen in my life, you wouldn’t see in a Hollywood movie,” he added.
Thaqi looks remarkably like a cast member from “The Godfather.” It is safe to say that when Thaqi refers to “the family,” he is talking about his relatives and the community that supports his restaurants. He pointed to a photo hanging on a wall that shows a customer he calls his “second mother” before explaining.
“It is hard to be away from Kosovo,” Thaqi said. “I lost my dad last year, and my mother is still there. But this is my second home. People have adopted us.”
Apparently, the violence and bloodshed that were part of Thaqi’s life before he came to the U.S. did nothing to diminish his old-world hospitality. Thaqi spends many hours most days in the kitchen, but what he enjoys most about his work is spending time with his customers.
“When I have time to spend in the front, I am at every table, joking with my customers,” he said. “There can be seven or eight tables, but this is the part of the job I like the most.”
Thaqi believes the feeling is mutual.
“I had one customer who made sure his last meal before he was deployed was Luigi’s,” Thaqi said. “And he made sure his first meal when he came back was Luigi’s.
“That means a lot to me.”
Contact Mason Lerner at email@example.com or (254) 501-7567