Heart of the business Restaurant and agriculture
Vendodhja Shko te harta
Nearby City of Durres, beaches of Durres and Golem, Tirana
No public transport; by private car the approach takes about 40 minutes from Tirana,
or 20 minutes from Durres. Well signposted from Shijak and Pjeza approaches,
last stretch from main road, from turnoffsignposted “Gjepale 2” is a well-maintained dirt road
suitable for all vehicles. If using Google Maps for navigation, do not take the route via the village
of Rreth as there is no connection across the river!
8 double/twin rooms, from €30/night
What to do
Farm tour, walk along the river.
What to bring back
Anything from the souvenir shop with typical products from around Albania (to be opened soon).
The story of the Agriturizem Gjepali started, in the broadest sense, 23 years ago, when Fundim Gjepali, then only 14 years old, left his village and immigrated to Italy in search of a better life. He initially started at the bottom of the restaurant “food chain”, but over the years worked his way up to become a successful, renowned chef. Apart from heading a kitchen in one of Rome’s most well-known restaurants, he has established and co-owns another in central Tirana.
However, Fundim was longing to create something truly for himself, while reconnecting with his own roots, at the place where he grew up, which nourished him and his love for food.
The village of Gjepalaj lies south of Shijak, a small town near Durres, characterised by the common communist-era brick apartment blocks mixed with traditional small family houses. While the rest of the Gjepalaj village lies on top of a small hill, the Gjepali farm restaurant is located to the east of the village, in a river loop surrounded by nature, with no other houses in its vicinity. When arriving at the property, the Italian influence on the owner’s life manifests in the architecture of the newly constructed restaurant and guesthouse, which was designed in the style of a typical Tuscan villa. The number of diners and overnight guests Agroturizem Gjepali already draws in after just opening in April 2019 is surprising, but stands as a testament to the owner’s reputation.
Yet, the setting and the philosophy differ from Fundim’s previous projects. Instead of the haute cuisine offered in his inner-city restaurant, the focus here in the countryside is on traditional dishes and local ingredients. In order to ensure the highest quality, Fundim has set out to the nearby villages, meticulously cataloguing the produce, meat and dairy sold by the local producers at the markets, and chooses the very best suppliers for his kitchen. This approach of collaborating closely with villagers ensures that everything that lands on your plate has travelled less than 10 km.
For now, the restaurant offers a set tasting menu, including local specialities like byrek me qumesht, a savoury pastry prepared with milk, homemade meatballs, slow oven-cooked veal ribs, fresh homemade feta-like cheese, lamb baked in yoghurt, and a cake-like dessert called revani made with plum juice, accompanied by fresh green salads and local olives. The recipes have been refined by Fundim Gjepali himself, and are executed by his kitchen staff, who he trained over months to serve up to 170 diners. A choice of mostly Albanian wines as well as a few select Italian wines are displayed on a dedicated wall of the restaurant and can accompany your meal.
Besides Fundim, who still resides in Italy with his wife Elida and their two daughters most of the time, other members of the family are involved in running the farm, restaurant and guesthouse. While Reti, Fundim’s niece, runs the restaurant and hotel, Agim, who is her father and Fundim’s brother-in-law, takes care of the agricultural and facility management of the business. As the farm just started in 2019, it still only produces relatively little, but supplies the restaurant with tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, peppers, aubergines and watermelon. Furthermore, behind the house the family has planted fruit trees, including figs and pomegranates, with a greater variety to come. Just like the kitchen and wait staff, the 10 farm workers come from the surrounding villages, bringing employment to the area.
Everyone involved with the business have come along way in the year leading up to the opening in April 2019, a challenge of which was the necessary infrastructure. During communist rule, the patch of land was used as a persimmon plantation, so before any construction could take place, proper road access and a water line needed to be installed. On a human level, diplomacy was needed with owners of neighbouring properties, who were sceptical of the new enterprise at first.
With the help of a local architect, the Tuscany-inspired country house came together, hosting the restaurant and kitchen on the ground floor, while the first floor is comprised of eight guest rooms, a shared lounge area and a veranda. Stepping inside through a beautiful wooden portal, the staircase leading up to the guest rooms, just like the exterior, features lots of plants. The hotel is decorated tastefully with a mix of modern and classic elements, using materials like terracotta tiles, stone and wood. The hallways and rooms feature original artwork by aspiring Albanian painters.
With all the Gjepalis have accomplished in the relatively short period of time so far, there is still plenty of work to be done by the family and their helpers, and Fundim and Elida are full of ideas of which part of the business they would like to develop next.
Starting from improved road access, with road-side parking, the transformation of the surroundings will include a play area in place of the current, improvised parking site, as well as a herb garden. Moreover, catering to the interests of younger visitors, the family are planning to have a few smaller animals, like rabbits and chickens, in the back of the farm. Eventually, the field of roughly two hectares in front of the restaurant will be completely used for growing produce for the restaurant, and will include greenhouses, bee hives, and a few grapevines at the back of the plot. Educational walkways for the visitors to explore the vegetable patches are planned, with little green “islands” for guests to sit and relax. These are plenty of ideas, and the family are hoping to implement them by 2020.
With his experience as a chef and love for food, Fundim is furthermore planning to invite his guests to his food laboratory, where they can learn and participate in the process of baking bread, making cheese, and different kinds of jam. And with his vision to invite local school children for educational excursions, he is setting the foundation for the next generation’s appreciation of the land, and the food that nourishes them. And maybe, just maybe, even inspiring Albania’s next master chef.