October 6 marked three years that Youssef Akhtarini, his wife Reem, and their six children have lived in Providence, resettling to the United States from Aleppo, Syria. For any family to move across the globe – fleeing a war-torn homeland, adapting to a foreign culture that has historically misunderstood and feared their own – this would be a momentous occasion. But the Akhtarinis have even more reasons to celebrate the passing of this milestone: their restaurant, Aleppo Sweets, has received national recognition by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the nominees for Best New Restaurant of 2019.
Although the restaurant best known for its baklava – flaky phyllo dough, stuffed with walnuts or pistachios, sweetened with orange blossom water and sugar – Aleppo Sweets has become a destination for anyone seeking Middle Eastern comfort foods: falafel wraps, pistachio-stuffed dates (drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cardamom), and Lamb Kabobs, grilled on a skewer and served with fresh Syrian bread.
Days after Bon Appetit’s announcement, Youssef, Reem, and Sandy Martin met at Aleppo Sweets. Sandy is a friend and business partner, though her relationship with the Akhtarinis goes far beyond both titles. She has stood with the Akhtarini family since their arrival at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, where she began volunteering in 2016. Sandy and her husband, Victor Pereira, have constantly supported the Akhtarinis’ dream of rebuilding Youssef’s business. This café-bakery has been a labor of love for all of them.
“Being recognized by such as prestigious food magazine is a great honor,” Sandy says. “We’ve already seen an increase in our baklava sales online.” Through their website, baklava can be shipped anywhere in the USA.
Youssef and Reem smile when asked how they feel about the nomination. “We are so happy,” Youssef says. “After the [Bon Appetit announcement] I want to continue the same work, for the same quality, the same food, the same everything. When any customer comes in, we want them to leave happy.” It seems that regardless of awards or fame, the family’s dedication to service is still their top priority.
Sandy sums it up best: “It’s hard for all of us to believe how a sweet little restaurant with a beautiful story of friendship and new beginnings could be in the national news.”