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On a warm, sunny weekend afternoon in the spring of 2022, we visited a street fair on Myrtle Ave., a major thoroughfare that cuts through Ridgewood, Queens. The roadway was closed to traffic, in favor of street food vendors, for many blocks; the only bus in sight was a 1950s coach, which we boarded to peruse the vintage advertisements and the lounge-like seating at the rear. But despite our appetite, none of the street food vendors tempted us.

We continued walking eastward, beyond the street fair and into the adjoining neighborhood of Glendale, until we were drawn toward the sight of a familiar, eternally hungry, cartoon character holding a hamburger.

In Serbia, he’s known as Pera Ždera (Pear-ah zhDare-ah), literally “Peter Eater.” New Yorkers of a certain age will know him as Wimpy or, in the words of Peter Grujić (Groo-itch), “Popeye’s friend.” Today, he’s also the namesake of Grujić’s small Serbian restaurant, Pera Ždera.

Fifty-some years ago, Grujić recalls, another small restaurant with similar cartoon branding was very popular in his childhood home of Belgrade, which at that time was the capital of the former Yugoslavia. Even then, ever since Grujić was “this high” – he holds his hand at about waist level – he was more interested in cooking than in pursuing a profession.

After moving to Queens more than two decades ago, Grujić worked at various small restaurants in the neighborhood, which is also home to the Serbian Association of New York. Between full-time food jobs, he prepared confections such as baklava and tulumba for a dozen or so local businesses, many of which catered to customers who emigrated here from Serbia or its Balkan neighbors. Although Grujić has also done some construction and plumbing work to make ends meet, he tells us over the counter of Pera Ždera: “Always, I come back to this.”

Except for weekends, when Grujić does his marketing and relies on a young colleague to handle the cooking, he works alone. Compared with his restaurant’s rotund cartoon namesake, whose single smiling enjoyment is the pursuit of hamburgers, Grujić is taller and leaner. But he’s equally focused: Making simple, good food, without compromise, and seeing that it’s appreciated, brings a smile to his face, too.

On that first visit to Pera Ždera, when we wandered in only a few weeks after the restaurant had opened, we were fortunate to score an Eastertime special: jagnjetina u somun (Yag-nyeh-TEE-nah ooh so-Moon), meltingly tender lamb on soft, chewy flatbread. We needed two hands to hold it and, eventually, a fork.

What’s often described as a “Balkan burger,” however, is the standard-bearer on the everyday menu. The pljeskavica (PYAYS-kah-Veet-sah) features a broad, flattened mixed-meat patty; at Pera Ždera this is principally beef, and a little chicken, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and paprika. Grujić dismisses what he says is the common practice of extending the patty mix with breadcrumbs; his patties contain “100 percent meat and spices,” he says.

In classic fashion, our pljeskavica was dressed with ajvar (Eye-vahr), a spicy relish; kaymak (Kye-mack), blended cheeses with the color and texture of clotted cream; and chopped onion. The fries on the side were exactly that, but they were excellent.

On a recent return visit we paired our fries (we couldn’t pass them up) with a Karađorđeva (Kah-rah-JEOR-Jeh-vah). This schnitzel-like cutlet, named for a 19th century Serbian hero, is prepared from pork that’s pounded thin, rolled around kaymak, breaded, deep-fried and ultimately topped, improbably but compellingly, with tartar sauce.

Afterward, as we reviewed the dessert case – all the confections are “by my own hand,” Grujić tells us – we were very tempted by a Serbian-style baklava made with sour cherries. In the end, however, we capped off our meal with žito sa šlagom (Zhee-toe sa Shlahg-om), wheat pudding with whipped cream.

Grujić freely shares the list of ingredients: equal parts boiled wheat, sugar and walnuts, seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and a hint of clove. There are “no secrets” to making good žito, he emphasizes, only “rules.” He wouldn’t give a thought to fillers or shortcuts, let alone skimping on the walnuts.

Žito plays an important role, Peter continues, in Serbian Orthodox Christianity. Each household has a patron saint, and each year family and close friends are welcomed to a Slava, a celebration of that saint. At the entrance to the home, Grujić tells us, a spoonful of žito and a sip of red wine are the prerequisites to sitting down for the Slava meal – a sumptuous feast with many courses, but still we can’t imagine enjoying a better žito than at Pera Ždera – with whipped cream on top, no less!

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Dave Cook

Published on June 19, 2024

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