Sapori e Vini: An Italian Trattoria Built to Last
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. Almost everything in Lebanon is transient. Whether it’s a hip new lounge, or a cozy little pizzeria; a widely successful international chain, or a ritzy eatery with outlets in a select few metropolises worldwide. There is no guarantee it will thrive and stay alive in Lebanon. Like the morphing façade of our own natural landscape, restaurants in this country are fleeting.
Few, though, somehow make it through, quietly chugging along and braving the ups and downs of the sinusoidal wave that is our state’s economy. And after over six years of rigorously studying the food and beverage scene in Beirut and beyond, I’ve found that several factors promote restaurant permanence: unwavering commitment to excellence and generosity; never, and I mean NEVER, skimping out on quality, freshness, and authenticity; easy parking; friendly service; an immaculate space and inviting atmosphere; and a damn good selection of dishes.
Sapori e Vini in Byblos is one such rarity. When I discovered it early last summer, months after its winter opening, I was windswept. A beautiful interior that evokes scenes of Italian city life; a Neapolitan wood-fired oven imported from the heartland; three unique dining spaces, straddling the indoors and outdoors, that house olive trees, a wine cellar, pizza bar, and bins of the day’s fresh produce; and wait staff who know exactly what they're doing. Byblos is blessed, I remember thinking. Beirut could learn from this kind of scrupulous genuineness.
|Isn't that the picture of soothing calm!|
Needless to say, the food matched the foregoing; it was, in a word, mind-blowing. Sure, I’d had decent trattoria cuisine in and around Beirut, but this was different. This conjured up tastes and flavors from our honeymoon in Italy like no Italian eatery in Lebanon had. With daily dishes reflecting the produce di giorno, house-baked grissini, a delectable melanzane alla parmigiana, and fresh sorbetti to purge the palate at the close of the meal, this place was destined to last.
And last it has.
We visited three weeks ago on an early Saturday evening. Greeted by familiar faces we’d met before - well-versed manager Serge and savvy waiter Rudy - including some new ones – lovely waitress Maria and executive chef Walter Benenati – we elected to sit in the indoor plaza beneath the olive tree. A basket of bread arrived, accompanied by homemade tapenade. Sparkling water revved up our appetites into full gear, as we proceeded to order our favorites plus some.
Fritto misto mare (15,000 LBP) translates to a bowl of fried calamari, shrimp and zucchini served with aioli paprika dip. You thought fries were irresistible? Engage a stopwatch from the second these land on the table to the second they’re wiped out: five minutes flat.
|Fritto misto mare, or seafood fritters|
After that indulgence, we reverted to the healthy: a bouquet of lettuce crowned with grilled calamari and avocado in lemon oil dressing (24,500 LBP). The colors present in this salad are so enticing, contrasted with a blue plate for a backdrop. You’d think it’s all about the edible, but presentation is everything. It helps unleash the appetite, and it’s probably best to unbuckle that belt anyway.
My cherished melanzane arrived next, slightly less artful than last time (no fresh basil to garnish it), but unequivocally as tasty and tantalizing (21,000 LBP). Zesty tomato sauce, molten cheese that stretches for miles, and delicately baked eggplant.
|Baked eggplant layered with mozzarella and Parmesan|
You can’t not order pizza. If you visit Sapori and have only one thing, make sure it’s the pie, with its crispy cornicione caching a soft crumb. We opted for two separate toppings on one pizza: diavola, or artisanal spicy Italian sausage, alongside Bufala D.O.P, or buffalo’s milk mozzarella. That was the wisest decision we made, because while one ignites, the other snuffs out. The harmony is unmatched.
|If you've got space for only one, split the toppings|
Another thing you can’t leave without: dolci. The tiramisu is exactly what you’d yearn for in the coffee and cream dessert, a digestif of sorts that washes down as it inspires euphoria. But the caprese di cioccolato e mandorle con gelato vanilla is everything. Let’s unpack that phrase: flourless chocolate and almond cake baked fresh every morning in the wood-fired oven and flanked with a scoop of ice cream. It’s part chalky, part moist, and all parts exquisite.
|Flourless chocolate-almond cake|
There’s something about Sapori e Vini that reassures you it’s built to last. Maybe it’s the solid brick walls. Maybe it’s the mystique of being rooted in the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Or maybe it’s the faultless recreation of Italian cuisine consistent from visit to visit, even a full year apart.
May its sapori e vini -- flavors and wines -- continue to tease our taste buds indefinitely.