Big Sittoo's in Arnold brings Mid-Eastern taste to the Valley
By Mary Ann Thomas
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Recently, the vegetarian grape leaves were sold out, and the folks at Big Sittoo's Mid-Eastern Cafe in Arnold were down to their last half pound of baba ganoush.
The dearth of prepared vegan food in the Alle-Kiski Valley is not lost on the owner of Big Sittoo's, Rima Elchami Zafaran, 43, of Lower Burrell, whose house-cooked Middle-Eastern specialties fly out the door as fast as you can say “sittoo.” (Sittoo in Arabic means “grandma.”)
For Zafaran, her menu is based on what she learned to cook from a number of friends and relatives.
“I didn't learn at home,” says Zafaran, who grew up in Lebanon.
“I learned by asking my mother-in-law, sister, whomever. ‘How do you cook this?' Then, I improvised.”
The origin of the Zafaran's menu is quite organic: These recipes are centuries old and cultivated from the traditions of orthodox Christian Antiochian religious fasting. During the 50 days of Lent, 40 days before Christmas and other holy days, worshippers abstain from meat and dairy.
They were vegans long before it became today's culinary trend.
Zafaran is more than acquainted with these religious and culinary traditions, because she studied theology, and, before she arrived in the United States, was a religion teacher in a private school in Syria.
In fact, it was when she was studying for her bachelor's degree in theology in Lebanon that she met her husband, and then-fellow theology student, Father Meletios Zafaran, who is pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church.
The couple left Syria in 2005 when Meletios took a position at a church in Albany, N.Y. He was offered the job at St. George's in 2010.
Zafaran used to roll grape leaves at the restaurant before she purchased Big Sittoo's this year.
“With the help of my husband, we put together everything,” Zafaran says.
This longtime Middle-Eastern food store, which Zafaran took over in September, shows its age, but its worn wooden floors are ideal for Zafaran's children to spin out a few cartwheels and for customers to stand back to read a large chalkboard listing about 30 — mostly a la carte — items.
The restaurant does not have a dining room. Food is available for take-out only.
“We eat this food every day, and we are happy to introduce our food to others,” Zafaran says.
In fact, she often gives samples to customers with the caveat: “You like it. You buy it.”
That was the case for the first visit recently by Eric Gustin, 22, of Arnold. Looking to buy the predictable, but tasty gyro, Gustin was surprised when Zafaran offered him a piece of Zaatar bread (vegan and $3), a light, yet full-bodied bread topped with three types of oreganos and sesame seeds.
“Oh, wow,” Gustin said after his first taste of Zaatar bread. Gustin promised to expand his menu choices with future visits.
About 70 percent of Sittoo's menu is vegan with some healthier meat dishes such as the chicken gyros, which also sell out quickly.
And Zafaran aims to whip up fresh, healthy meals.
In fact, the motto on one of her large glass refrigerators is “sahtain,” which means in Arabic “eat in health,” which isn't far away from a bumper sticker asking “Got hummus?”
The a la carte items don't come with the typical a la carte price. Many items are in the $4-per-pound or serving range. Even their platters, such as a Middle Eastern mainstay as a gyro goes for $7.
Zafaran does not give short shrift to meat dishes such as lamb gyros ($5.50) and baked kibbeh ($4) with a firm yet moist outer shell of ground beef with bulgur stuffed with meat, pine nuts and sauteed onions.
Making all of her dishes fresh from scratch, Zafaran says, “I am truly offering the best from our tradition.”
Top sellers are the vegetarian grape leaves ($4.50 half dozen/$8 per dozen) that sell out with their crisp signature medley of rice, parsley, green onions, tomato, olive oil and lemon juice.
There is not much fat in this dishes, Zafaran says. The use of lemon is evident in the bright and complex taste of the restaurant's tabbouli salad ($6.50 per pound).
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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