Ali Baba does many things well, but for me the really strong suit is their pides (which are not available at all Turkish restaurants in New York). Pide (pronounced “PEA-day) is the Turkish word for flat bread, related etymologically to the Greek “pita.” More importantly, for our purposes, it also refers to the same kind of dough topped with chesses and/or meats, and usually cooked in a wood-fired oven, a Turkish version of the pizza (which also shares the same etymology). A good pide is one of the world’s great pizza-like items, and any pizza lover who hasn’t tried one should remedy the situation ASAP.
Pides and their cousins go way back. According to Andrew Dalby, “..there is no earlier evidence than third-century Madedonia for the use of a flat loaf of bread as a plate for meat, a function which bread continued to perform in the pide of Turkey, the pita of Greece and Bulgaria, the pizza of southern Italy and the trencher of medieval Europe.” (Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, [Routledge:London] 1999 (p. 157)). Mr. Dalby should add tarte flambée, the amazing Alsatian pizza, to his list.
I first had pides in the eighties at a little place in Montreal called Vieux Istanbul, now unfortunately closed. I stopped in every time I went to Montreal, which was usually annually for the jazz festival. I discovered Ali Baba one day about eight years ago while walking down 34th street. At the time it was a hole-in-the wall that looked like a pizzeria–actually, it was a pizzeria. They had a pizza oven and a counter up front and a small back room with just a few tables. At the time they sold slices of pizza as well as Turkish food. I stopped in for lunch and discovered that they made sublime pides. Eric Asimov reviewed Ali Baba in the Times in 1999, and after that the place became wildly popular. Eventually they moved to bigger, less humble digs several doors away. More than three times larger than the original location, they are now crowded all the time. They no longer sell slices of pizza.
At our Ali Baba dinner party I was given the task of ordering appetizers for the table. Pides work as appetizers or main courses, so I rattled off a list of pides and other appetizers to the waiter. After my litany, almost everybody at the table figured there was no point in ordering anything else. There wasn’t.
I ordered three different kinds of pide: potato, kashkaval (feta cheese) and special. These were all new to me, as I usually get the mixed (karisik) pide when I’m on my own. Most of the pides have a medium-thin crust and a submarine-like shape. The special pide at Ali Baba is round and with a slightly thicker crust. It includes egg as well as the same ingredients as the mixed pide: kashar cheese (similar to mozzarella, but a bit more savory), sucuk (spiced sausage), ground meat, and pastirma (the dried, cured beef that is the etymological papa of pastrami). I was less taken with the special pide than with the equally special mixed pide.
The potato pide had a smooth mashed potato filling with a perfectly balanced spice mixture and a bit of kashar cheese. The kashkaval pide had a creamy, absolutely delicious feta topping. These three pides provided great flavor variety.
In addition, I ordered some small lahmacuns, which despite the name are really pides too. These have a round, thin crust and a chopped lamb topping with tomato, onion and spices. A Middle-Eastern version is known as lahmbajin (Turkish cuisine has a long, symbiotic history of cross-influences with the cuisines of the Middle East, the rest of the Mediterranean and Central Asia, and even East Asia).
Everybody loved the pides as well as the other appetizers: a mixed appetizer plate, exquisite grilled calamari, and an octopus salad. We also ordered several desserts to share around the table, and the standout was a surprising burnt-top rice pudding, which was not advertised as rice pudding brûlée.
With a couple of bottles of wine and some beers we got away for $25 per person. Not bad, eh?
Another good place for pides is Taci’s Beyti, in Brooklyn, but I prefer Ali Baba. I’ve never been to Turkey, but I am assuming that one can get pides that are at least as good as the ones at Ali Baba. As I assume, I salivate.
* Speaking of Michael and Turkey, M. Kasper's artist's book, Iconoclasm in Pontus, is available for sale as well as a free PDF download.