Pizza or Manaeesh? The Best of Both Worlds at Amira Grill

The sign above the door at the Amira Bakery has been recently updated to read Amira Grill — the old sign was a simple vinyl banner, but the new one looks much more permanent — but the breads are still the main attraction at this Lebanese joint. 

Manaeesh (often spelled manakeesh) are similar to pizza, but with decidedly Middle Eastern toppings and a crust that's distinctly breadier than its Neapolitan cousin, despite the thinness. At Amira, the menu offers several topping options, from a basic herb and olive oil blend (zaatar) to a meaty slathering of fine-ground beef and lamb (so fine, it's almost a paste), to a sweet and savory combo of honey and soft labneh cheese. Some of the flatbreads are labeled manaeesh on the menu and some are designated as pizza; the latter are topped more like Western pizza, with grated mozzarella over everything. But the true manaeesh are much lighter and not so salty as a standard New York slice. 

Ordering is done at the counter (service is often a little gruff). From there, you can peek into the kitchen, where the flames from a brick oven can be seen alongside a vertical spit of meat roasting for shawarmas. Those sandwiches, wrapped in house-made pita that are almost as thin as flour tortillas, come rolled long and slender and wrapped in white butcher paper with the ends twisted. When I stopped in recently, that's what most of the other customers were ordering. I opted instead for a spinach and feta manaeesh in a to-go box so I could eat a couple of slices in the sparse (but heavily tiled — like a World of Tile showroom) dining room and take the rest home for later. 

That plan backfired. Although I held myself to two slices as I watched other customers come and go with their neatly wrapped shawarmas (they looked almost like enormous joints), I devoured the rest of the manaeesh in my car on the return drive. The combination of spinach and feta doesn't seem particularly addictive, but Amira doesn't just throw on wads of frozen spinach with bland, grocery-store cheese. The spinach — judging by the cross-sections of stem and the earthy flavor — seemed fresh chopped, and was sauteed with lemon juice to give it a bright tang. It was augmented by nuggets of goat cheese and there was a little peppery heat in there too, most likely from cracked peppercorns.

Tomato sauce isn't part of the standard manaeesh experience; instead, the crust sports a liberal dose of olive oil, adding richness to the pie. The crust itself is fine-crumbed and slightly chewy, with a network of tiny air pockets instead of the larger holes and chewier crust of a Neapolitan pizza. And because there's no sauce, the crust and toppings remain distinct rather than melding into one another. The final two slices of my furtive highway lunch were not cut all the way through, so I folded them together and immediately felt a wave of empathy for New Yorkers who claim that a proper slice must be folded before eating. Doubling the toppings by sandwiching two slices together also doubles the intensity of the toppings and results in something almost like an empanada or Welsh pasty. Needless to say, I felt no remorse for not saving leftovers for later.

Those shawarma on warm, fresh pita certainly looked tantalizing, and I plan to return to Amira soon for a full sampling of the menu. But for a quick and inexpensive alternative to takeout pizza, the manaeesh stands up to some of the top pizzerias in town. But you'll have to choose between Italian ingredients served with bearded hipster earnestness or Middle Eastern flavors dished up with taciturn but straightforward efficiency.