STRATFORD, Conn. — When Milanno Ukehaxhaj arrived in New York City from Kosovo in 1991, it was a Sunday afternoon and he headed straight for the Italian food mecca that is Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y.
By Monday, he was back there again — because he already had a job and, it turns out, a future business partner.
“I met him the first day I came in this country,” Ukehaxhaj said, wrapping an arm around Getano Catalano on Wednesday. “We used to work on Arthur Avenue together.”
It was there that the pair hatched a plan to open their own business, bringing a taste of Italy up the shore to Stratford’s Gaetano’s, a wildly popular deli on Main Street. On Wednesday, the pair officially moved the business to bustling Barnum Avenue, in a spot they own themselves.
“The opportunity came up and we bought the property,” said Ukehaxhaj, who lives in Milford. “It’s easier for people to get to us from (Route) 108 and Trumbull. But people still come to us from all over. We’ve been blessed.”
Town dignitaries, family and friends joined the festivities Wednesday, even breaking open a jug of homemade wine brought by a longtime customer.
Karen Kaiser, Stratford’s economic development director, can attest to the deli’s popularity.
“If I want to get lunch, I get here before 11 (a.m.),” she said. “After that, there’s a line.”
And it’s no wonder. Gaetano’s menu includes a laundry list of delicacies from cured meats, cheese and olives to signature sandwiches, such as the top-selling Kovac’s Special featuring chicken cutlet, prosciutto, mozzarella, roasted peppers and broccoli rabe.
The secret to the business’ success — there are also now outposts in Westport and Monroe — is the attention to detail, said Catalano, who lives in Eastchester, N.Y. The bread is delivered daily from the Bronx and the mozzarella is housemade once, if not twice, a day.
The passion is evident from both the owners and their staff, who Castalano said are like family.
“I can’t wait to go to work in the morning. I love to make the mozzarella!” Ukehaxhaj said, his eyes widening. “My heart pounds like I’m going to war. I can’t wait.”
Gaetano’s is now at 1478 Barnum Ave. Learn more here .