Honoring a Legacy
With a new concept opening in Wake Forest and a revamp of Driftwood Southern Kitchen’s menu in North Raleigh, Chef Nunzio Scordo is constantly refining his cuisine.
By Alex Dixon
The Saleh family legacy starts with pita bread. More than four decades ago, the family came to the United States to escape civil war in their native Lebanon. Longing for the traditional pita bread of their former home, and not finding a suitable replacement, the family opened a bakery in 1977. That bakery has since blossomed into a line of family-run restaurants that have become a staple for Lebanese and Mediterranean food in the Triangle.
First, there was Neomonde, opened by the four Saleh brothers and their mother, Cecilia Saleh. Then in 2014 one of the brothers, Mounir Saleh, ventured out to open another restaurant to honor his mother. Called “Sassool,” the restaurant is an homage to her childhood nickname. The Saleh restaurants continue to grow with
the family, as Mounir Saleh’s daughters, Noelle Scott and Simone Saleh, manage the Sassool restaurants alongside him. Now, 42 years after the family came to the Triangle, there are three locations each for Sassool and Neomonde. And three generations of the family have been pulled into the business. “We rely on each other so much more than we would if we didn’t have a business together,” says Scott, Sassool’s general manager. “It has created a really high level of respect and trust between us all.”
As third-generation restaurateurs, Scott and her sister keep their grandmother’s ideals and recipes at the forefront of the restaurant but haven’t been afraid to experiment, keeping up with the latest food trends over the past four years. Items like quinoa salad and a monthly trial to determine if new dishes should become permanent menu additions show these contemporary touches. “We insist on making everything fresh, every single day. I think we hold all the other Lebanese food
in the Triangle to a high standard that is hard to beat,” Scott says. “We get our produce from the farmer’s market every day; we know where our meat is coming from. We offer a living wage to our employees. We are constantly evaluating our menu and making sure we are up-to-date on what our guests want. Our restaurant is fast casual, but we operate like a fine dining restaurant.”
Sassool recently expanded from its two locations in North Raleigh and Cary with a third location, called Sassool Select, at the newly opened Morgan Street Food Hall in downtown Raleigh. As its name suggests, this location showcases a select few items from Sassool’s menu in a format that is new for the brand. “Being downtown is a
completely different vibe for us. The customers and
their needs and wants are different, and we had to evolve to meet those needs,” Scott says. “Simone, my dad, and I used to all be working under the same roof in North Raleigh, day in and day out. Now that there are three locations, we’ve had to spread out to make sure that all are operating and functioning correctly.”
The smaller menu at Sassool Select doesn’t include kebabs, but still has shawarma and falafel as main entree items. The salads in the cold case are only the staples from larger locations, and there isn’t a selection of hot case items. Scott says Sassool Select is much easier to manage than the 6,000-plus square-foot larger locations in Raleigh and Cary that employ more than 100 people combined. “Our select concept is one that we could put into any food court, stadium, or office building, and one we could multiply much more rapidly,” Scott says.
As Raleigh residents and downtown workers increasingly desire quick and healthy food options, Scott says Sassool Select fills that need. With limited access to grocery stores and take-home options in the downtown area, residents can take home containers of food in bulk from the restaurant. The set-up at Morgan Street Food Hall also allows for families who can’t agree on where to eat (Scott jokes she has a large family of picky eaters) to try Sassool’s food alongside other cuisines from around the world. “The food hall is a great place for families or groups of people to go so they don’t all have to eat the same thing,” Scott says. “You can get burgers, empanadas, ramen, ice cream, Mediterranean food…all in the same place.”
While Sassool may be adapting to modern restaurant formats and menu items, Scott says guests can be sure that the restaurant will stick to the family history and food that cemented its legacy.
“When making decisions for new items, menu changes, and locations, we always ask ourselves, ‘What would Sassool do?’ This helps us keep true to our businesses mission and heart,” Scott says. “[Cecilia Saleh] has not only has given us her recipes, but also shown everyone in the family the value of hard work. She’s shown us how to work together as a family and how to share our Lebanese hospitality with the world.”