'Lazizah' means 'delicious' in old Yankee Yantic

By Michael Costanza

America is a melting pot, but you wouldn't always know it by dining out in this neck of the woods. Our local restaurants aren't exactly famous for offering a buffet of international cuisines.

When I was a kid, not so long ago, “ethnic food” meant sharing a pupu platter at China Village on New Year's Eve, where my sister and I liked to hold our spare ribs over that blue flame. Luckily for those food adventurers among us, the years since have brought greater diversity to our small-town eateries. Today there's Thai food in Mystic and Westerly, Dominican in Groton, and sushi - would you believe it? - in Jewett City.

Now add one more to the list: Middle Eastern food in, of all places Yantic. There, in one of Norwich's scenic villages, pinned between the Yantic River and Route 2, in the shadow of colonial homes and a vacant mill, is Lazizah.

This tiny Mediterranean bakery and market offers such take-out choices as tabbouleh salad and kibbeh balls, an unofficial national dish of Lebanon, the homeland of husband-and-wife owners Bassem and Iffat Salahi.

Since they opened about a year ago, the Salahis have won at least a few fans: On a recent Sunday, one young customer from Brooklyn, N.Y., could be overheard rejoicing at finally finding a place to stop for falafel when he visits his mother in Franklin, while a Lebanese woman from Willimantic stopped in for lunch and some groceries, thrilled that she no longer has to drive to Massachusetts for her favorite brand of Syrian flatbread.

”Lazizah” comes from the Arabic word for “delicious,” and most of the lunch choices there are worthy of the name. But their baked desserts deserve even higher praise. The highlight of my two visits was the oh-so-flaky baklava, specifically the “choclava” made with almonds and chocolate. It was the perfect sticky-sweet ending to a savory, spice-filled meal of babaghannuj and kafta kebab. So sweet that I couldn't resist licking the residue off the paper it was wrapped in. So sticky that it required great sucking upon my incisors when I was done. Worth every penny of the dental bill.

As for my kafta kebab, I found it satisfying and filling. Essentially a grilled meatball of spice-laden ground beef, it came wrapped in pita with hummus, onion, tomatoes, and romaine lettuce ($6.99).

The babaghannuj - the roasted, peeled, and pureed eggplant dish - featured an incredibly creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. It too was served in a pita roll-up ($5.99), with lettuce, red onion, absolutely fantastic olives, and a drizzle of olive oil. Its stark garlic flavor demanded complete attention and, in truth, was a bit too much, but the Salahis make no apologies. A sign on the counter counsels customers to “Stop and Smell the Garlic” once in a while.

On my return visit, I tried that falafel ($5.99) that the kid from Brooklyn was so excited about. It was huge. Giant patties of mixed beans, onions, garlic, parsley, and cilantro came double-wrapped in soft pita with tahini, chopped lettuce and tomato, and the Lebanese signature pickled turnips dyed pink with beet juice. The patties were warmly spiced (cumin and more), almost sweet, with an aroma that's soothing in the same way a pumpkin pie is in late November.

Even better was the grilled chicken wrap ($6.25), a panini-style toasted pita containing tender chunks of rotisserie chicken and a light garlic sauce. Shreds of chicken skin were peeled off and scattered throughout, packing this pita with plenty of flavor - and guilt. Coins of pickled cucumber made the flavors pop. Outstanding. “Lazizah,” indeed.

For dessert, the fried Lebanese macaroon was too fried for me, but the date-filled ma'amool, a semolina cookie, proved to be a pleasantly chewy, mildly sweet treat.

I also ordered the Lebanese baklava, which, along with pistachio and walnut, contains orange-blossom and rose water. The skeptic in me wondered if I'd really taste these flavors. Over the years, I've learned not to get my hopes up when a menu promises some such sophisticated ingredient. I've tasted a few “prosciuttos,” for example, that might as well have been plain old Oscar Mayer ham. No worries - the rose water shone through in both the aroma and flavor. Another sticky-sweet success.
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