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Pitaland bridges love of two countries

Thursday, March 20, 2003

By Jane Citron

In the Middle East, social engagements and business appointments start with a cordial welcome and always include refreshments. But the setting was Brookline, not Beirut. Extending a welcome were Joe and Jocelyne Chahine, owners of Pitaland, a Middle Eastern bakery and grocery on Brookline Boulevard.

Joe Chahine with some of the pita products made and sold at Pitaland in Brookline. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

It is 9:30 a.m., but who could say no to Joe's offer "to please try our spinach cheese pie," small golden triangles warm from the oven? The consummate host, Joe Chahine offered more food.

"Now please, some of our bread and cheese," he said, passing flavorful whole-wheat pita breads sprinkled with zatar (the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice blend comprising powdered thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, sesame seed and salt) and Armenian string cheese.

With the savories, he served a delicious natural fruit juice drink called Amita Motion from Greece.

Jocelyne and Joe Chahine married in Lebanon in 1974 and traveled to Pittsburgh on their honeymoon to visit with relatives who had immigrated to America. At that time, Lebanon was involved in a bitter civil war, and whenever Joe called home, every phone call ended with his father telling him, "Stay in America; make your life in America."

After two years, Joe and Jocelyne were granted political asylum in what Joe describes "as the best country on Earth."

The Pittsburgh honeymoon has lasted 28 years and is still going strong.

Joe's brother, George, taught him how to bake pita breads in a brick oven. For Joe, making dough and baking bread was an entirely new career. In Lebanon he had taught French and Arabic in elementary school.

Pitaland is a family business. Jocelyne is in charge of the payroll, as well as buying supplies and overseeing the kitchen, where everything is made from scratch. The children are just about grown, and Joe speaks with pride of his family.

"Danny is 24 and works with me in the business. Young Joey at 14 helps out on vacations and after school," he said. "During the summer, Joey's a big help at the farmers' markets selling all those lemonades and spinach pies."

"And the girls," he said, pausing to show a recent picture, "Donna is 18 and works in the office after classes. Aileen, our oldest, was married in August. Her job as a human resource manager is outside the store, but she helps Mom when she can."

The Chahine family started out on Eighth Avenue in Homestead in 1988. After a fire destroyed that property, they relocated to a larger space, a former Foodland in Brookline. Joe Chahine wanted to rebuild the bakery and expand the business to include a wholesale and retail store for Middle Eastern specialty items and prepared foods.

The retail store and office are on the first floor. The large space downstairs is equipped with fully automated baking equipment. A huge oven capable of 1,200-degree heat produces 4,000 dozen pita pocket breads every eight-hour working day, five days a week.

Souhil Alhaj makes the spinach pies at Pitaland in Brookline. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Pita breads and pies use the same dough, a combination of unbleached flour, yeast, water and salt started from scratch.

Pitaland pocket breads are sold in many area supermarkets, and a number of specialty stores carry the homemade pastries, savory pies, salads, baba ghannouj and hummus. In addition, Joe Chahine or one of his family sells at the Citiparks Farmers' Markets in the summer.

"Spinach pies and falafel are the biggest sellers," he said, "but we make great gyros and hot sausage sandwiches. An Italian customer at the East Liberty market told me my hot sausage was better than his mom's!"

The spinach and cheese pie made with fresh spinach, a few sliced onions sauteed lightly in vegetable oil and crumbled feta cheese seasoned only with lemon juice, salt and pepper is a favorite.

Jocelyne said customers could try their hand at home. "We sell the dough in 5-pound packages," she said, adding, "It freezes well."

Pitaland sells fresh tahini by the pound, an outstanding product quite different from the jarred or tinned version. Many items are sold in bulk, such as the dried chickpeas that add texture and flavor to hummus. Jocelyne suggested adding a pinch of baking soda when cooking chickpeas to shorten cooking time. With fresh tahini and good dried chickpeas, homemade hummus can be a match for the best in Jerusalem or Lebanon.

Homemade laban (Middle Eastern yogurt) can be used in cucumber dip, tzijiki. The store carries several varieties of bulgur for tabbouleh or kibbee, chickpea flour for falafel and a wonderful little tool for coring and stuffing zucchini.

For many years, Joe has supplied most of Pittsburgh's Middle Eastern restaurants, and when he opened his retail store, his goal was to offer an extensive selection of authentic quality specialty items necessary for Middle Eastern cooking at home. Many products are imported.

Locally, he made a farm connection in Erie, provided the farmer with seeds from Lebanon for cucumbers and zucchini and last summer shared the bounty with his customers.

Joe believes there is a strong interest in Middle Eastern foods, which he described as healthful, wholesome fare using many vegetables and low in fat and cholesterol.

"The wave of the future," he said.

Jocelyne described one of her family's favorite dishes: cored zucchini stuffed with a ground lamb mixture and cooked in yogurt sauce.

Just visiting the Chahines' storehouse of authentic ingredients is a great motivator for trying Middle Eastern dishes at home.

Related Recipes:

Stuffed Zucchini In Yogurt Sauce Coosa
Tzijiki (Cucumber Dip)
Fatoush & Dressing
Pita Herb Toasts
Hummus Bi Tahini

Jane Citron is a Squirrel Hill-based cooking instructor. She kitchen-tested the recipes in this story.

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