Delicacy, and Delicacies

T ucked into little bird’s nest pastries and featured in authentic Damascan-style ice cream, pistachios are a key ingredient at the new Pistachio Café in Westville. This “nut of choice” for Syrians, owner Mohamad Hafez says, symbolizes Syria’s legendary hospitality. Hafez aims to bring his native country to his neighbors not just through its food—alongside delicacies from Mediterranean Sea neighbors including Turkey, Greece, Italy and Lebanon—but also by creating an opportunity for people to meet and talk with others from different cultures over a cup of coffee.

Located in the Lotta Studio Building at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Blake Street, Pistachio replaces a coffee counter that once served as the entry into the studio. Now separated from Lotta in its own larger space, Pistachio Café’s entry boasts a display case filled with baked goods—from Middle Eastern delicacies like namoura and baklava to European treats like scones and croissants—and offers a full coffee and tea menu, including specialty coffees from Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

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Walk deeper into Pistachio, and you’ll find an elegant sitting room furnished with Victorian-style sofas and coffee tables edged by a few more traditional cafe tables. Antique radios adorn one wall, and an old floor model stands in a far corner. Another wall, which the cafe shares with Lotta’s coworking area, is a puzzle of floor-to-ceiling antique windows that offers a semi-private glimpse into the space next door. As permanent as it appears, the wall can slide open to accommodate larger events such as poetry readings, concerts and social gatherings, which Hafez hopes to host post-pandemic.

An architect by training, he designed Pistachio himself, mindful of the Middle Eastern majlis, a salon hosted at people’s homes where tea, coffee and food are served and conversation is savored. “We always have people in our house. That’s how I grew up,” says Hafez, who was born in Damascus, lived for a time in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the United States from Syria in 2003. The cafe’s salon ambience, designed with a nod to the aesthetics of Syria’s French colonial history, merges his “love for the historic cultural phenomenon of the majlis married with my nostalgic memory of my own parents’ salon in Damascus.”

Hafez, whose family once owned a coffee shop in Chicago, has been disappointed with most of the Middle Eastern food he’s found in the United States. “If somebody has an authentic experience” at Pistachio, he says, “I’m happy.” It’s okay if you just want to grab a cup of coffee and go, he adds. “If you want a quick transaction, go in, you’ll be happy, you’ll find a slew of options…” But he hopes you’ll eventually decide to sit down and stay awhile.

Many of the shop’s baked goods are locally sourced—for example, a variety of croissants and breads ($3-$10) from G Café Bakery in Branford (a forthcoming lunch menu will feature their breads) and Italian pastries ($2.50-$4.50) from Petonito’s Pastry and Cupcake Shoppe in East Haven. On the other hand, Hafez imports his baklava ($1.85-$2.70) from the only bakery that meets his standards, in Dearborn, Michigan. “It has to be the perfect and exact recipe just like home,” he says.

Indeed, this baklava is something special. It’s flaky, but moist. It doesn’t crumble to pieces. Layered both in construction and in flavor, its rich, compact filling is sweet without being cloying. It comes in several incarnations: classic baklava, rose baklava, baklava fingers. In a similar vein are those little bird’s nests ($2.75)—handkerchiefs of layered filo dough with corners folded in to protect a nutty, sweet-and-salty filling that includes several whole pistachios like little green eggs in the “nest.” Hafez also claims the “largest selection of Turkish delights” in town (3 pieces for $2.25), imported directly from Istanbul, in flavors such as coconut, chocolate, rose and, of course, pistachio.

I savored my pastries with a cup of Syrian coffee—deep black, slightly sweetened and lushly seasoned with cardamom ($5.35). Served “short,” more like an espresso than an American coffee, it’s meant to be sipped over conversation, not rushed to go. The Syrian coffee’s beans come from a Florida importer, but the shop’s source of other imported beans is Giv Coffee in Canton, Connecticut, which does the roasting.

A pandemic is not the best time to open a new business. Then again, it’s the pandemic that opened up the space in Lotta and the opportunity to finally commit to an idea that had been brewing throughout Hafez’s most difficult years in the US, first as a student, then as a successful architect designing skyscrapers. As his corporate career was taking off, Hafez was also building a career as an artist, which helped him express the turmoil of watching from afar the war and destruction in his homeland while working to counter xenophobia here. His art work, much of it inspired by architectural-style models, has earned accolades and exhibitions nationally and internationally.

Torn between the two pursuits for more than a decade, Hafez has finally pressed pause on architecture to focus on his art—he’s currently working on projects with the Oriental Institute and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago—and on Pistachio. He’s been through “a lot of pain and struggle and doubt to get here,” he says.

Turns out, there’s one more reason for the moniker Pistachio. When it was time to choose a name for the cafe, Hafez looked for “a universal term,” something that could be understood by everyone yet would express the values of hospitality and bridge-building. Finally, he landed on the most obvious name of all. On his computer desktop for 15 years he’d harbored a folder where he’d been collecting images and ideas for his dream.

The name of the folder? Pistachio.

Pistachio Café
911 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 8am-6pm, Thurs-Sat 8am-9:30pm, Sun 8am-8pm
(203) 800-4262 | [email protected]
Website | Facebook | Instagram

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-3 provided courtesy of Pistachio Café. Image 4, featuring Mohamad Hafez, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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