New York is a melting pot of the world’s cuisines, where anything is possible — so we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the owners of Palestinian hit Ayat decided to launch an Italian restaurant. After all, Ayat is based in Bay Ridge, where Italian restaurants are dizzyingly numerous, mainly serving red-sauced Italian American fare. So how would this spin-off be different, we wondered as a friend and I motored down the Belt Parkway Sunday around noon, as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge rose up before us like a giant metal insect.
Owners Abdul Elenani and Akram Nassir (his partner in Al Badawi) saw a need for a halal Italian restaurant, a category in which their new place Fatta Mano (“hand made”) is nearly unique. (According to Jiniya Azad of Muslim Foodies, Grounds of Brooklyn is the only other halal Italian restaurant she knows of.) What does halal indicate besides a religiously sanctioned method of butchering? In this case, it means no pork and no wine list. As it turns out, Italian food can well do without the former, while the latter has spawned a BYOB policy at Fatta Mano.
The restaurant (8501 3rd Avenue) is right across the street from Ayat at 85th and Third Avenue in downtown Bay Ridge, and the design partakes of the same profusion of plastic foliage — featuring bougainvillea on the front and lemons and oranges dangling from the ceiling inside. Behind a bar in one corner is a gas-fired oven that looks like a 19th-century steam locomotive. The seating consists exclusively of small round tables, which must be pushed together to accommodate the extended families that flooded in soon after we arrived. By 1 p.m. the place was thronged.
The flames in the oven leapt as the pizza maker – his baseball cap turned backward – fired one of the first pizzas of the day. It was a margherita ($16) with the usual gooey white ponds of mozzarella; clumpy, slightly sweet tomato sauce; and basil leaves applied before baking. The crust was novel, though: crisp and light for easy by-the-slice pick-up without sagging. It was really quite wonderful in its own idiosyncratic way.
Appetizers arrived as we were polishing off that pizza. The fried calamari ($21) was crisper than usual, with a pinch of onion powder in the batter, served with a mild warm tomato sauce. While we deemed the calamari good, the mozzarella in carrozza ($14) was disappointing. Several versions of mozzarella in carrozza have staked a claim around Brooklyn. While I like the one that floods a toasted cheese sandwich in a light lemony sauce, this one is like fried mozzarella sticks, scattered with peach slices and walnuts. We’d been straining to detect Middle Eastern influences in the Italian food served here: Were the fruit and nuts a Palestinian touch or more of a farm-to-table gesture?
Among pastas, the fettuccine Bolognese ($28) tasted as if the noodles had been rolled and cut minutes before — consistent with the name of the place — and cooked so that they were still slightly firm. The sauce was not the overly tomato-y kind, but ground beef-y with an orange tinge and what tasted like a hint of citrus, adding a welcome brightness.
Chicken, branzino, and eggplant parm were among the basic six entrees; we went for the chicken Milanese, which was every bit as big as we’d hoped. The flattened cutlet flopped across the plate, its crumb coating dotted with the occasional sesame seed – here was finally a detail that seemed Southeastern Mediterranean! In addition, the crust tasted of za’atar, or maybe it was just oregano. Whether or not the cutlet shows influences of Palestinian cooking owner Abdul Elenani has come to be known for, this is Italian American fare done in a slightly lighter and fresher way.
We finished up our meal with a serving of – what else? – tiramisu. It was cakey and creamy, served in a wedge and sprinkled with cocoa. As we left, we looked across the street and wished we had room in our stomachs to walk across the street and eat a second meal at Ayat.