If you’re accustomed to thinking of pita as a small cardboard wallet for storing your falafel, reconsider: Olympic Pita’s pita is twice the diameter of the store-bought version, flopping luxuriantly over the sides of the basket used to ferry it to the table. Finish one up and another appears as if by magic, still smoking from the beehive oven that stands in the front window. That oven is a Central Asian tandoor, which tips you to the Sephardic roots of this kosher Israeli restaurant. A baker is kept busy all day long flinging dough balls into the oven’s clay interior, then fishing them out with a medieval-looking iron hook.
The next gustatory wonder as you penetrate the interior is a help-yourself salad bar that stands in front of a pair of twirling shawarma cylinders, which come in chicken, lamb, or turkey denominations, depending on the whim of the proprietors. The shawarma tends to be dry, but the salad bar is very good; half the offerings constitute fine examples of the slaw-shredder’s art—some tart and austere, others laced with thick mayo. There are pickles of various sorts too, including the vinegary Israeli cucumbers inspired by French cornichons, and a multiplicity of colorful chilies. As part of your salad-bar option, you’re also entitled to miniature falafels, which maximize the proportion of crusty surface area to fragrant greenish pulp.
Anyone who’s seen the fusty, well-worn interior of Olympic Pita’s original Coney Island Avenue branch will be amazed. The swanky new space features colorful cut-glass sculptures stuck up helter-skelter on every surface. These do double duty as room dividers, in a sort of Israeli imitation of the great cathedrals of Europe. Alternately cocky and clueless, the waitstaff can be annoying, and you are well advised to carefully formulate your dining strategy before placing your order. Any of the excellent meat entrées—most grilled over charcoal—come with a choice of two sides, or with unlimited access to the salad bar. The simple answer to this dilemma is to stick with the salad bar, though you might be prone to exclaim, as a friend did recently, “There are too many pickled things, and I read somewhere that pickled things give you stomach cancer.”
Alternately, you can get your entrée with a choice of two sides and an “Israeli salad,” which turns out to be a boring, undressed dice of tomatoes, cukes, and onions. Sadly, your choice of sides is comically limited to a small section of the menu that lists only starches: french fries, mashed potatoes, various forms of rice, and couscous, with the list changing daily. All, including the french fries, are less than inspiring. Usually, the servers forget to bring one of the starches anyway, and if you order double mashed potatoes, say, only one small plate comes out unless you complain. For baba ghanoush, hummus, tahini, and other things that might seem like they’d make good sides, you pay extra. The garlicky hummus is totally commendable and well worth the $7.95, but the baba, in the usual Tel Aviv fashion, tastes like Miracle Whip. The danger of Olympic Pita’s dinner configuration is that the starches might distract you from the real star of the show: the freshly made pitas.
As for entrées, skip European options like schnitzels and steaks in favor of the specialties of the Sephardim—Jews whose ancestors were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the Inquisition, and whose folkways have long melded with those of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Jews. Anything that says “Iraqi” on the menu is splendid, including tubular ground kebabs of chicken or beef laced with onion and served with a dried red-pepper dip ($21.95 for a pair with sides at dinner, $14.95 at lunch). These can also be made into giant rolled sandwiches utilizing one of the thin laffa flatbreads for $10.95, or put in a pita for $9.95. (The shifting price structure at Olympic can induce a headache.) Good, too, are the grilled lamb chops— tiny specimens that taste as smoky as a fireman’s helmet—and Moroccan beef sausages ($19.95, $14.95, $10.95, $9.95) that lie profusely upon the plate and, at the higher prices, are perfect for sharing with friends over one of the refreshing Israeli beers like Maccabee or Goldstar. If you get the chicken kebabs, make sure you order them “bone in”—the bone provides much of the flavor.
I’d skip the desserts, though, which tend to be made with dairy substitutes. This is a strictly kosher joint, after all.