Family Inspiration: Haim Amit of Vino Levantino was inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi and others to update his grandmother’s Turkish recipes.
It’s easy to love a cuisine that describes eggplant as pescado de tiera — fish of the earth — but Turkish-Sephardic cuisine has more than inventive nomenclature to recommend it.
“The Jews of Izmir couldn’t afford much meat,” explained Haim Amit, co-owner of the new neighborhood wine bar Vino Levantino, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “so there are many vegetable dishes.”
And what vegetable dishes!
Despite offering only a small selection of tapas-sized servings of eggplant, tomato, chickpeas, leeks, potatoes and kohlrabi, Vino Levantino makes a fair case for the cuisine as it spreads out and encompasses the whole Eastern Mediterranean. Each dish is carefully prepared and herbed to complement, not overpower, the ingredients. The beech mushroom salad takes just a hint of sweetness from the maple syrup dressing. Lightly frying the leek-and-potato patties (similar to the traditional Passover dish keftikes de prassa) with dill elevates them from being just leeky latkes.
It’s sometimes difficult to discern when the original cuisine from Amit’s Turkish family ends, where Israeli influence begins, and where the chef’s interpretative invention takes over. Jewish Turkish cuisine is not essentially different from any of the many local Turkish cuisines, except for the constraints of kashrut.
More than two millennia of Jewish and Muslim cohabitation in Turkey meant that whatever swept through the Black Sea into the Aegean and Mediterranean or back again made its mark on a number of local cuisines. At the center of an empire — first the Holy Roman and then the Ottoman — foodways from the silk route arrived in the Mediterranean, colliding with Balkan and European ingredients, traditions and palates.
Vino Levantino is a unique twist on the wine and tapas bars of lounge land. Combining the expertise of both co-owners (the Turkish Osman Cakir and the Israeli Amit), as well as the received wisdom of Amit’s late Turkish grandmother, the redoubtable-seeming “Madame Donna,” it sets out to provide a neighborhood hangout with a flavor of the Levant.
When Madame Donna was born, just before World War I in Ottoman Istanbul, the idea that eventually her recipes would be written out in Hebrew and photocopied for her 16 grandchildren surely could have made little sense.
Even when that reproduced recipe booklet became a reality at her 92nd birthday in Israel in May 2004, the idea that those recipes would be the basis for the menu of a stylish wine bar on the Upper West Side and that her instructions, interpreted by chef Edwin Reyes, would provide visitors of all stripes with a gustatory glimpse of Ottoman Jewry would have seemed like a dream.