By Michelle Napoli | December 26, 1996

Traveling is one of my favorite things to do, not only to escape the humdrum of daily life but also to experience different cultures. Like many of us, I can't afford to travel nearly as much as I'd like. So I've settled for an inexpensive alternative: spending a day or an evening in one of New York City's many ethnic enclaves.

There are few places where so many other cultures are represented. In recent months I've had a dim sum dinner in Chinatown, a Malaysian meal at a little restaurant in the Bronx, and dinner at an Albanian cafe, also in the Bronx. Usually my friends and I were the only - or just about the only - English-speaking patrons, and it gave us a taste of these cultures, literally and figuratively.

My most recent experience was at the Albanian cafe, where I was taken by an Albanian-born friend who offered to show me his old 'hood.

Though born in Albania, soon after he moved with his family to Italy, then the Bronx, and finally East Hampton. The Bronx, of course, was where we went this recent evening, to a small cafe his uncle (who, he tells me, used to live on the East End and cook at the former Montauk diner) owns, smack dab in the middle of a very Albanian neighborhood.

We were greeted graciously - in Albanian. I didn't quite know what to expect of the food, except that they wouldn't be serving any pork since Albanians, including my friend and his family, are by and large Muslim. Dinner ended up being quite good and similar in many ways, I felt, to Greek food.

The salad we started with, in fact, was a lot like a Greek salad but without the olives: lettuce, tomato, and onions chopped up and tossed with a vinaigrette and feta cheese. Then we each were presented with a plate of meat - a piece of beef that looked like kielbasa and had a nice spicy kick to it, a patty of lamb with lots of onion and spices, and then several pieces of lamb meat with fewer onions and spices rolled to resemble a sausage. Good thing I gave up vegetarianism last year.

Actually, I really enjoyed the dinner, which also included marinated green peppers which looked like they were of the hot variety but were actually quite sweet. Oh yes, and bread with the meat. I'm not sure if it's an Albanian custom or if my friend was just giving me a hard time, but I was scolded more than once for not having a piece of the white bread we were served folded in half in my left hand while I ate the meat with my right.

After we finished (and I got over my fear of offending our host because I couldn't possibly eat every bite on my plate), we had this wonderful tea (chai in Albanian, as in Russian, the only word I can remember) that is served so hot it burns your tongue. It also had so much caffeine I got an immediate buzz, and I was told this was the most mild of the teas they drink.

At some point during our meal I realized I was the only woman in the restaurant. I had gotten the sense from my friend that Albanians may not treat women with the same equality as I'd like. "Don't women go out, too?" I asked. They do, I was told, with their husbands or maybe with a group of other women. I guess just not to a place like this.

And I was very obviously not an Albanian woman, I was told. If I were, I'd have my hands folded on the table and I wouldn't be looking around at the other people in the restaurant, but rather straight ahead at our table.

Regardless, I hope one day to be able to travel to Albania and some of its neighboring countries, like Greece and Yugoslavia, and some a little farther away, like Czechoslovakia, where my mother's family is from. And, of course, across the Adriatic Sea to Italy, where my paternal grandfather's family is from.

Perhaps this friend of mine and I get along so well (well, most of the time) because of our heritages. He informed me that Italians and Albanians live peacefully among each other in that very neighborhood where we ate dinner.

Curious about Albania after this excursion, I found out from the ency-clopedia that in 1272 Charles I of Naples was proclaimed king of Albania for a time. In the mid-15th century Venice and Naples (by the way, who decided to Anglicize the city's Italian name, Napoli?) supported the Albanians' struggle against the Turks.

Just a few little pieces of history, but I'm glad to know them and glad to make a connection. What was that Walt Disney song I loved so much as a young girl? "It's a Small World After All."

Michelle Napoli is a staff reporter for The Star.