The House That Pita Built

Mansour Amiran loves bread. The object of his passion isn’t marbled rye or herbed focaccia: it’s pita. Amiran owns the Casablanca Bakery in Rogers Park, and with the help of his wife, Simin, his sister, Shahla, and a staff of nine, he produces about 50,000 pitas a day, plus dozens of other loaves native to Jordan, Syria, and Iran.

A former Iranian air force pilot, Amiran emigrated with his wife and three children in 1985. “I decided I wanted an easier life for my kids,” he says. They moved to Chicago, where he started an import business in Mediterranean food products. Located in Elk Grove Village–for its proximity to the airport, the highway, and rail lines–Golden Foods began by selling items like chickpeas, tahini, and rice to Middle Eastern restaurants around the city. In 1992 Amiran saw the opportunity to branch out: his customers needed freshly baked bread.

The Amirans found a space in the back of a building on Devon and set up a production line. “We started with pita bread only,” he says, but it didn’t take long before his accounts were asking for additional varieties. They began making annual research trips back to the Middle East: “We would visit a local baker and ask them to show us how they made the bread.” They learned how to make two-foot-long loaves of barbari, an Iranian bread dimpled with tiny craters and coated in sesame seeds, and samoon, a diamond-shaped loaf that originates in Iraq. Those became big sellers, as did lavosh, the traditional thin, perforated flatbread, and an addictive olive bread filled with feta cheese, fruity olive oil, and briny kalamata olives. Soon major grocery stores were carrying Amiran’s bread.

In 1995 the Amirans expanded again, opening a market in the front of the bakery. There they offer a mix of hard-to-find canned goods–stocking the shelves with help from the import business, which is still going strong–and a full deli of items like baba ghannouge, tabbouleh, hummus, and various yogurt sauces. In 1997 Shahla moved to Chicago and joined the business.

Deli offerings are made on the premises: savory pies (meat, spinach, cheese, or vegetable), stuffed grape leaves, a slightly spicy falafel. Casablanca also makes dozens of varieties of cookies, including a crunchy anise and a soft chickpea that tastes better than it sounds. Customers can watch the famous pita being baked through a glass observation window tucked behind a rack of spices and olives.

Amiran gets in around 5 AM each day, although workers have already been on the job for two hours by then. The pita dough, made of a high-gluten flour, is mixed by machine, then formed into balls about the size of a small orange. They’re cradled in small cotton baskets that are raised and lowered inside a glass-enclosed proofer for nearly 20 minutes while the dough rises. Then they’re pressed into ovals an eighth of an inch thick and tossed onto a conveyor belt, which moves them through a second proofer, this one slightly warmer and more humid. As the ovals exit the proofer on their way to the oven, Amiran pulls one out and hands it to me. The texture is soft and pliable, like a baby’s bottom, and gives gently at the slightest touch; the scent is yeasty.

In the custom-built oven, imported from Israel, gas heats baking stones above and below the conveyor belt. “It’s important to heat the top and the bottom of the bread,” emphasizes Amiran. “That’s how it gets the bubble shape. In a regular oven, you would just get flatbread.” Less than a minute later, steaming hot pitas, some slightly charred, exit the oven. They are just as Amiran predicted: puffed up and about the size of a 16-inch softball. He picks one off the conveyor belt and tears it in half. “See that? The bubble is how you get that pocket in the pita,” he says proudly.

Casablanca’s pita has a shelf life of about 48 hours. If it’s not purchased in that time, Amiran will buy it back from the supermarkets. But he claims that doesn’t happen often. “The demand has really increased for authentic Middle Eastern foods.” Besides, he says, “Nobody is doing it the way we are.”

Casablanca Bakery is at 1541 W. Devon, 773-764-7482.

–Steve Dolinsky

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.