A tale of two Palmyra restaurants

If a Downtowner tells you, "Meet me for Mediterranean food at Palmyra on Smithfield," you'd better ask, "Where on Smithfield?"

There's the Palmyra that opened this past fall at 408 Smithfield St., between Macy's and One Oxford Centre.

Then there's the Palmyra that just soft-opened Feb. 10 at 10 Smithfield, near the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Both are named for the same place -- an ancient, lost city in an oasis in the desert of central Syria. Both serve Mediterranean food.

And both are run by Syrians who came to Pittsburgh by way of Bulgaria.

It's not as crazy a coincidence as it might sound.

They're brothers.

Marwan "Mario" Moussa runs the first Palmyra, after many years of running Madonna's, a Mexican restaurant that was on the other side of Smithfield. It moved to that spot last year from nearby Fourth Avenue, where it had moved from Oakland, which is where he bought it in 1999.

Samir "Sam" Moussa says he joined his brother here in the States to help him start up the Mediterranean concept, and then they parted ways, and he went off to do it on his own.

It just happens to be two blocks away.

However their beef goes, it appears to be a good thing for people who like good, fresh-made Mediterranean food.

Both places have similar menus, though Sam Moussa says his is more extensive. "I make everything in my hands," he says, including specialties of kibbe and shawarma in chicken and lamb-and-beef. All the meat is halal -- raised and slaughtered per Islamic dietary rules.

In addition to a steam/cold table full of hot entrees and cold salads, he's got a special oven that's starting to crank out meat- and spinach pies and flatbreads topped with ground meat or z'atar. His Palmyra does more of its own desserts, including the Syrian syrup-soaked fried dough, mshabak. (One of two days that I visited last week, his wife, Rawah, gave me a little round loaf of rose-water-flavored holy bread that was divine.)

The new Palmyra is, well, newer looking, with orange- and lime-green walls. It's open longer, too, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The original Palmyra -- open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays -- has its fans and regulars, too.

Both brothers are gregarious. The new Palmyra appears to have a bigger staff of family and friends, and they're constantly plying customers with samples and asking if everything is OK. It is a very welcoming place.

"For me, customer is king," Sam Moussa says.

He says he was running a big European restaurant in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he spent almost three decades, including many years with his brother. But he'd also regularly spend time at his farm and orchard in his native Syria, until everything in that country went to hell. He's not even sure if any of his olive or apple trees still are standing.

So now, with a heavy heart about Syria, he's making a new start, like his brother did before him, and living in Mt. Lebanon.

He says, "I'm changing everything for my son," 12-year-old Christian, who was born here, on a visit to Mario Moussa.

The two brothers say they aren't mad at each other, but each says the other should change his restaurant's name.

Mario Moussa says he's not going to, as his was the first. He said it might work out, if the menus aren't exactly the same.

He hasn't eaten at Sam Moussa's Palmyra, but, he says with a grin, "Maybe I will Saturday," when he's not working at his.

Palmyra Meditrranean Cuisine is at 408 Smithfield St., Downtown: 412-281-4693.

Palmyra Authentic Mediterranean Food is at 10 Smithfield St., Downtown: 412-690-2340.

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr. First Published February 20, 2014 12:00 AM


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