Sapori e Vini: Authentic Trattoria Dining in Byblos
Some of the most memorable moments from our honeymoon in Italy were stumbling across family-run trattorias in the cities and towns we visited. Tucked in calm streets away from the footfall of giddy tourists, these dining establishments—somewhere between osteria and ristorante in the scale of formalness—feature casual service, low prices, and an emphasis on steady neighborhood clientele rather than haute cuisine.
I still recall those generous bowls of ribollita, or vegetable stew, followed by seafood pasta swimming in frutti di mare. Dessert comprised uneven squares of tiramisu sliced from a pan. You could wash it all down with a bottle of still or fizzy water and a cup of espresso for a very reasonable €25. In comparison, the Italian restaurants you find in Lebanon are nowhere near as merciful when it comes to price and value.
|A colorful collection of Italian antipasti|
Two brothers by the names of Jad and Imad Doumet are out to change that. Their mission? To reproduce the trattoria experience here in Lebanon, complete with trickling skylight, piazza with an olive tree, pizza oven bar, trattoria dining hall, and veranda leading to a hidden garden in the back where herbs are cultivated. The concept revolves around a scene of urban Italian living animated by architecture, interior design, landscape design, and product design for special elements.
|Veranda dining in Byblos|
And thus was born Sapori e Vini, or "flavors and wines", some six months ago just a stone’s throw from the bustling souks of Byblos. With red brick walls, wooden tables, metallic cages, and three separate dining areas straddling the indoors and out, the restaurant instills a feeling of calm wherever you choose to settle in.
We sat by the glass window, a wall of domestic and international wines pegged adjacent to us. Outside we could make out a lawn of tricolore plants arranged in the form of the Italian flag. Sapori doesn’t leave a stone unturned!
|Sapori e Vini offers a variety of local and international wines|
As we perused the menu, our waiter Rudy placed a basket of homemade bread rolls, grissini and supple white sliced bread alongside a savory dip of roasted eggplant, ricotta, and basil. Dips alternate daily according to the whims of the chef and whatever’s in season, so if you taste something you fancy, ask for an encore.
|Homemade bread rolls and grissini|
Antipasti launched with an Italian classic: melanzane alla parmigiana, three layers of baked eggplant alternating between Parmesan and mozzarella (20,000 LL). Half a dozen bruschetta arranged in pinwheel fashion arrived next, each pair uniquely crowned from mushroom paste beneath bresaola and Parmesan to roasted diced tomatoes with verdant pesto (16,000 LL).
|Baked eggplant layered with mozzarella and Parmesan|
Shortly thereafter, a salad replete with grilled calamari emerged atop a bed of wild rocket and avocado tossed in lemon oil dressing (22,500 LL). I was immediately transported back to a weekend in Dubrovnik, Croatia, two summers ago, when the understanding of fresh seafood first sunk in. A faint shade of pink free from that awful rubbery feel of frozen squid, Sapori’s frutti di mare is exceptionally fresh and robust.
|Grilled calamari salad|
And we sampled it a second time, in fritter form. Fried calamari, shrimp, zucchini and eggplant straws coated lightly with flour (no eggs, as Executive Chef Ignazio enlightened us!) held us as captive as kids in a candy store. The lime-kissed aioli isn’t even necessary – you won’t want to temper any of that battered goodness.
|Seafood and veggie fritters|
Pizza is often the make-or-break criterion of any Italian dining experience. Sapori had already catapulted my expectations to astronomically high levels, thanks to the presence of its Neapolitan acunto forno, or wood-fired oven, resulting from expert craftsmanship transmitted through four generations.
|This wood-fired oven imported from Naples|
Indeed, in testament to a genuine pizza Napolitana, Sapori’s boasts a full-bodied cornicione balanced by a thin pie center. Never mind the toppings, the dough and tomato sauce are dizzyingly delicious on their own!
|A perfect pizza with goat cheese, mozzarella, and bold tomato sauce|
Cotoletta alla Milanese is another dish indicative of the authenticity of Italian cuisine, and Sapori’s passes with flying colors. Moist albeit pounded into a centimeter-thick oreille d’éléphant, this Dutch veal chop is speckled with coarse sea salt and sided by a refreshing green salad. In perfect repudiation of the fried allumettes that usually complement this dish at Lebanese restaurants, Chef Ignazio insists on studying the composition and chemistry of each dish and its components. A fried main necessitates light greens.
|A liberally portioned Milanese|
We were about to forego dessert altogether, but homemade gelati sounded irresistible, particularly in flavors as eclectic as basil-lemon, yogurt, café and mango. A couple scoops of each (7,500 LL), and we felt as if we’d not only purged the palate but the paunch as well!
|Homemade gelati in flavors like mango and basil-lemon|
Panna cotta decorated in passion fruit coulis, powdered sugar and crushed walnut also sated without stuffing (11,000 LL). From a distance, the custard-like cooked cream with fruit sauce resembles an egg sunny side up, but your taste buds won’t deceive you. This is all project sweet stuff.
|Panna cotta with passion fruit coulis|
For me, Byblos is quintessentially about the souks, the seaside, the summer festival, and al fresco dining in the hustle and bustle of the old town. But now, I have a whole new reason to savor it, and it’s called Sapori e Vini.