Food & Drink

Little Italy’s Persian Find

Ozra offers a different cuisine in the Old World neighborhood.

If you’re not careful, you’ll walk right past the entrance to Ozra,
despite the flag bearing its name above an awning. The solid front door
doesn’t immediately distinguish itself as a place of business. But
persevere. Gustatory pleasures await those who find their way inside.
The two-level space sends a warm welcome with its gold-and-maroon
accents against pale walls, bare-wood tables, subtle lighting, sitar
music, and rows of glass containers, each encasing a delicate flower.
The downstairs dining room can get noisy in the evening when a
happy-hour crowd gathers at the small bar in the rear, but it’s a fine
place to indulge in the restaurant’s intriguing Persian cuisine, which
borrows from the dishes of India and other Middle Eastern countries, and
its Mediterranean fare.

We prefer the intimacy of the upstairs room, which is actually a
mezzanine overlooking the lively scene below. (Note: It’s much quieter
during lunchtime.) The building was once a bakery in Little Italy and is
just steps from the neighborhood’s iconic dessert place, Vaccaro’s.

Don’t worry about parking: If you can’t find a space on the street, a
garage is conveniently located next door. And the restaurant will stamp
your ticket at night, so the tariff is only $4.

In the restaurant, co-owners Reza Holland and Mahrdad “Max” Tabasi
have created an understated, elegant setting as a backdrop for their
wonderfully aromatic skewers, stews, and selection of basmati rices.
But, like many restaurants, the kitchen tweaks the menu with seasonal
favorites like two of its winter offerings: a Persian noodle soup and
khoresht fesenjan with sautéed chicken, toasted walnuts, and pomegranate
sauce­­—with rice, of course!

Our servers—who were cheerful and helpful on both of our visits—were
only too happy to explain how best to pair the fragrant cooked grain
with all of the entrees.

Before you get to that point, though, a garlicky hummus is served at
dinner to stave off any hunger pains while you decide on starters. You
can order the various eggplant and homemade yogurt dips separately, but
my friends and I enjoyed sharing the yogurt trio.

It’s fun trying to decide on a favorite—if you can even choose. Each
creamy mix has its own personality: one with cucumbers and mint, another
with dried shallots, and the other, called borani, with spinach and

Another time, we delved into the eggplant baba, a tantalizing blend
of puréed eggplant, onions, Persian goat cheese, and walnuts. It may not
be a beauty, but the brown concoction is great, especially scooped up
with crisp pita-bread triangles.

The shirazi salad is a flavorful beginning, too. Its simplicity with
cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, and parsley, tossed with a citrus jus,
belies the complexity of the whole. It didn’t take long for this dish to

Now, back to the basmati decision. There are four types on the menu.
The delicate, long-grain rice is available plain, with barberries (a
tiny, bright-red fruit grown in Europe), with dill and fava beans, and
with sour cherries, all dusted with saffron.

Our waitress suggested the dill-and-fava-bean rice with the khoresht
ghormeh sabzi, a stew of fork-tender filet-mignon cubes, vegetables, and
red beans. The dense, meaty combo is served in a bowl, while the rice
is decoratively arranged on a separate plate with red-onion slivers and a
charred, roasted tomato.

The kitchen pays attention to presentation with a series of pretty
plates. The jumbo shrimp, marinated in a saffron-citrus-herb-sauce, were
carefully nestled like sleeping children on a plate, as was a strip of
savory skewered ground sirloin (mixed in-house)—that coupled beautifully
with the sour-cherry basmatic rice.

The lamb chops are a specialty, our server said. We can see why. The
four chops (three for lunch), seared on the outside, were moist and
tender and went well with the tart barberries—they remind us of
cranberries in taste—in the accompanying rice.

Desserts may seem familiar, but they are distinctive. The
honey-drenched baklava, for instance—a pillowy, layered pastry—is made
with almonds, a welcome variation from the traditional pistachios. The
Persian ice cream is a heavenly ball of saffron and rosewater. And the
lemon sorbet has an interesting texture with threads of frozen noodles.

This newest Little Italy restaurant is truly a find, once you’ve found the front door, that is.