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On the Road
On the Road: Following the (Saintly) Signs
We headed to Fall River, Massachusetts to learn about mana'eesh za'atar.
Bryan Roof

It's 6 A.M. at Mario's Lebanese Bakery in Fall River, Massachusetts, and Maroun (Mario) Ellakis feeds mana’eesh za’atar, a Lebanese flatbread coated with za’atar, onto the revolving steel plates of his custom-built brick oven. "We eat mana’eesh every day in Lebanon. Anytime. Early morning, supper, anytime," says Mario.

A view of the exterior of Mario's Lebanese Syrian Bakery in Fall River, MA.
A view of the exterior of Mario's Lebanese Syrian Bakery in Fall River, MA.

As he slides each dough round into the oven, Mario quickly taps them a half dozen times with his fingertips to reduce puffing and to allow the za’atar mixture to pool in the pockets as they bake. After 90 seconds in the depths of the 1,200-degree oven, the mana’eesh emerge with delicate, char-flecked bubbles on top and a crisp, golden bottom.

Owner Maroun Ellakis double-checks the seals on a batch of meat-filled pies before baking in the kitchen.
Owner Maroun Ellakis double-checks the seals on a batch of meat-filled pies before baking in the kitchen.

From a young age Mario was drawn to the kitchen, where he would help his mother cook. He enjoyed being around the food and even had a special affinity for grilling. “When I was 13 years old I started working in kitchens in Lebanon. I learned [cooking] little by little.” Baking was a passion he developed over the years.

Val Demeri arranges a spinach filling over rounds of dough in the kitchen
Val Demeri arranges a spinach filling over rounds of dough in the kitchen.

When Mario came to the United States from Lebanon in 2004, he knew he wanted to open his own business. He worked a series of odd jobs until 2008, when he drove by the shuttered George's Lebanese Bakery, which had been in operation since 1943 but then had been closed for about a year. “I saw the place was closed. So I wrote a note and stuck it on the door, and the next day a lady called me. I came in here to see the place and … There's something I want to show you.” He walks toward the front counter and then points up at a faded black-and-white photo badly torn and split at its edges, hanging high on the wall: an image of a well-known Lebanese saint. “I saw Saint Charbel [Makhlouf] was here. So he gave me a good sign to go for it.”

Meat-filled pies cook in a custom-built brick oven outfitted with a conveyor belt topped with metal discs
Meat-filled pies cook in a custom-built brick oven outfitted with a conveyor belt topped with metal discs.

Five days a week, Mario is in the bakery at 2 a.m. The flatbreads and pies he bakes at his namesake bakery are based on family recipes, which he explains he cooks from memory because he knows their “correct taste.” The steady business is a far cry from where he started in 2008. “The first couple of years we were just making it. It was very hard for me. It was no fun.” Now, he tells me, “I love that I get customers that come from an hour away, from Boston, from the Cape, plus I ship all over the country. This type of food is only in Fall River.”

Owner Maroun Ellakis transfers manaeech za'atar to a baking peel before transferring them to a custom-built brick oven.
Owner Maroun Ellakis transfers manaeech za'atar to a baking peel before transferring them to a custom-built brick oven.
On the Road

Mana'eesh Za'atar (Za'atar Flatbreads)

A light hand and a hot oven produce a flatbread full of flavor.