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At the edge of Matthews, an unexpected taste of Iran

Reza and Ameneh Bassami offer traditional Iranian kabobs along with pizza and Greek specialties.
Reza and Ameneh Bassami offer traditional Iranian kabobs along with pizza and Greek specialties.

By Tom Hanchett

So there I was, heading out the door of International Grocery, a Russian-Turkish market on the suburban border of Matthews and Stallings, N.C. And across the parking lot I saw a sign saying “Athens Pizza” — with pictures of kabobs in the window. Kabobs??

With a name like Athens Pizza, you’d expect a Greek-Italian mash-up. And you’d be right. The big menu board inside the restaurant offers gyros, Greek salads with feta cheese and lots of pizza and pasta choices.

But the menu also shows plates of rice with kabobs. Koobideh Kabob — ground sirloin. Joojeh Kabob — chicken roasted golden with saffron. Shishlik Kabob — marinated lamb and veggies.

Owners Reza Bassami and wife Ameneh (“You can call me Emmy,” she says) hail from Iran. Reza had travelled to over two dozen nations before he arrived in the U.S., “the best country in the world,” he says. He had $5 in his pocket but a knowledge of medicine learned from his pharmacist father. He worked for a healthcare firm out west for five years before a chance trip took him to Charlotte. “We came here and saw the city, and it was beautiful.”

They bought Athens Pizza from its Greek founder in 2007, learned pizza-making, but added kabobs from their homeland. “We have like 3000 Iranians here in Mecklenburg and Union counties,” Reza Bassami estimates.

To cook the kabobs, they built a big grill filled with charcoal — zoghal in Persian. Ameneh wields a traditional bamboo fan called a bad bezan to keep the coals just hot enough.

Along with the skewer-roasted meats, the kabob plates come with toasted pita, fresh mint and cilantro. And there’s a jar of traditional red sumac powder, a mild spice made from berries, to shake onto your saffron rice.

 Plate with Koobideh and Joojeh kabobs, roasted over open coals.
Plate with Koobideh and Joojeh kabobs, roasted over open coals.

Athens Pizza
Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday Noon – 9 p.m.
2920 Old Monroe Rd.
Matthews, NC 28104
(704) 821 – 6350

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