New Beginnings: The opening of Aleppo Sweets

IMG_4976IMG_4911 While most restaurants and cafes begin with a vision, Aleppo Sweets, in many ways, began with a friendship. Sandy Martin, of Providence, and Youssef Akhtarini, of Syria, met at Dorcas International Institute of RI in fall 2016. It was Sandy’s first day volunteering with refugee families who were resettling in Rhode Island, to offer cultural guidance and practical advice — such as how to ride the bus — and the first family she met was the Akhtarini family: Youssef, his wife, Reem, and their six children, who ranged from 2 to 13 years old. Sandy remembers sitting beside them, thinking of Syria in recent news, and biting her cheek to keep from crying. The Akhtarini’s home and IMG_4930bakery, reduced to a pile of rubble; their two-year wait in Turkey, hoping to be permanently relocated; having to start their lives over in a very foreign place … the reality of all they’d experienced seemed overwhelming.

From that first day at Dorcas, however, Youssef was already interested in returning to his profession as a baker, wanting to work and support his family. What began as a volunteer assignment quickly turned into a genuine connection as Sandy visited the family more often, wanting to learn more about their culture, faith and history. I asked how long it took before she tried Syrian food. “Well, as you know, it’s difficult to go into a Syrian home and not be fed.” The first day she stopped by she was offered dates stuffed with pistachios, dusted with cardamom — a Middle Eastern treat that is also on their menu.

On her third visit, Sandy found Youssef in his tiny kitchen, every surface covered in flour and cornstarch, rolling his own phyllo dough with a 3-foot long rolling pin. Baklava is a big deal in Syria. As Reem told me, “You don’t hear of people buying one square, two squares. They buy 2 to 3 kilo.” Their bakery in Syria would be stocked with literal towers of baklava — customers buying for weddings and special events, not to mention everyday dessert.

Thus, Aleppo Sweets began as a baklava-selling venture, out of churches, at farmers markets, online. But renting the kitchen of a friend’s pizza restaurant wasn’t a long-term solution. After weighing their options, Sandy and her husband, Victor Pereira, bought a property to renovate and turn over to the Akhtarini family once they established their business. (There is a GoFundMe campaign to help defray these costs, and they are still graciously accepting donations.) Four weeks ago, the new shop officially opened.

On my first visit, I stepped through the threshold of an unassuming white brick building, and my jaw dropped. I was disarmed by its beauty: the teal backdrop and shining copper tea pots, the rustic mirrors and pierced brass lanterns, the laser-cut wooden decals over the windows that usher in star-shaped light — every detail so thoughtfully considered. Small succulents decorate every table; a cluster of cushioned chairs offer the feeling of a cozy living room; the assortment of tables, booths and upholstered ottomans give the impression this is more of a restaurant than a café. (Just FYI, patrons need to order at the counter!) Before I found a seat, looked at the menu, or even greeted my friend, I took pictures of every corner of the room — it’s that lovely.

IMG_5045The menu is intentionally small, but aside from a page’s worth of baklava options (you can buy boxes of 4, 8 or 16, as well as individual pieces), the menu primarily offers savory options, some of Syria’s most popular dishes. One “sweet” option you must try are those pistachio-stuffed dates I mentioned earlier, which — upon tasting for the first time — made me boldly declare, “This is the best date I’ve ever had!”

If you visit with friends, there are great mezze options for sharing: chicken and lamb kabobs, hummus and tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves and falafel. There are also dishes that are great if you’re flying solo, such as lentil soup or fatayer, small boat-shaped flatbreads filled with toppings like za’atar spices, Aleppo peppers or cheese. My absolute favorite dish, however, is the musabaha. It’s unlike anything I’ve tried before: a large dish of creamy hummus and whole chickpeas, served warm with a spoon, topped with some of the most delicious olive oil I’ve ever tasted, diced tomatoes, parsley and fried Syrian bread. Traditionally served for breakfast, this is comfort food at its best.

A meal is not complete, however, without something to drink, and their tea is exceptional. Prepared with a teaspoon of sugar, unless otherwise requested, a small pot of tea with ginger and cardamom is my new go-to. (A small pot can satisfy two people, about four small cups each.) They also offer Turkish and American coffee, as well as cold options, including a Syrian yogurt drink I’m excited to try.IMG_5047

A final note: This business supports not only the Akhtarini family, but myriad Syrian refugee families, at least eight of whom have found employment here. Youssef and Reem are often in the back preparing food, but you’ll see their daughters on the weekends at the register, and you might catch a glimpse of Youssef himself peering through the window of the swinging kitchen door, making sure customers look happy. This is his greatest joy: seeing smiling faces.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he tells me before I leave. His thank yous are for Sandy and Victor, his employees, and you, readers — everyone who has supported this business. “I am just so … thank you.”

Whether spoken in English or Arabic, such heartfelt gratitude needs no translation.

Visit: 107 Ives St, PVD; Follow: @aleppo_sweets; Donate: gofundme.com/help-youssef-begin-again

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