CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ammar Krayem -- the Charleston area's newest restaurant owner -- is a very positive man. If you knew his recent struggles, you might ask him how he remains so upbeat, and he would tell you, "It's faith in God."
Krayem, with his wife and four children, fled Aleppo, Syria last October -- amidst the horrors of a civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates. Since mid-December, Aleppo has been the target of an aerial offensive.
And in recent days, he has worked diligently to open Grano, his restaurant, despite a water contamination crisis that has crippled even long-time eateries in the area.
So Ammar Krayem knows first-hand the importance of a hopeful attitude in the face of adversity, and it shows from the moment you enter Grano, located across from the mound in South Charleston, along what is known as "ethnic food row."
His friendly manner, warm smile and firm handshake bring a welcoming feeling. That, and the delicious smells coming from the kitchen, as well as a beautiful homemade almond cake, a marzipan cake and Swiss rolls displayed in the curved glass bakery cabinet near the back of the café.
It isn't always easy to leave the past behind, but Krayem says simply, "It's faith that keeps me going."
An American-Syrian with citizenship in both countries, Krayem brought his wife and four children to Charleston because he has relatives here.
"I wanted my family to be close to their relatives in this difficult time. We had to leave everything behind. We left with just our jackets. But that is OK because as long as I have my family, my health, and my hope, everything will be OK," Krayem said.
The move has been a big transition for the family, but they are adjusting well to the changes and are excited about opening their new restaurant, Krayem said.
"Grano is a family business and hopefully it will give us some hope and help us to pay the bills. I believe that if you work hard and do an honest job, and you do your best, God will reward you," he added.
Grano, which means wheat or grain in Italian, is an Italian Mediterranean restaurant. The bright yellow and intense brown in the eatery's décor are drawn from the colors of wheat, Krayem said. The colors, lights, tables and chairs reflect his architectural studies at the New York Institute of Technology, while the extensive menu and soft music reflect the long history of cultural exchanges between Asia, Africa, and Europe in the Mediterranean region.
All converge for a feast of the senses. And it is, indeed, a family affair.
His wife, Naheda, prepared the mouthwatering cakes on display, and his son, Amjad, in 10th grade at George Washington High School, made a short film highlighting the restaurant's menu, its concept, and the beauty of the Mediterranean region. It plays on a large screen television in the café.
The oldest daughter, Nadine, is in college. The middle daughter, Hayla, is a student at George Washington, and the youngest daughter, Talia, is a student at Overbrook Elementary.
The Grano motto is "fast, healthy, casual dining at modest prices." Fresh food is their identifying trait, and their lunch specials are a way to eat healthy at about the same price as a fast food restaurant, Krayem said.
For $7.99, diners get a green salad and their choice of four soups (chicken, lentil, minestrone or broccoli), a Margherita pizza (a light pizza with olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese), or one of four pastas (fettuccine Alfredo, four cheese, farfalle primavera, or pasta with meat or marinara sauce) along with homemade bread.
For $8.99, they can choose a half chicken or beef sandwich with a cup of soup and a small salad.
Six children's meals are available for $4.99: two types of spaghetti, grilled chicken with rice, a cheeseburger, goldfingers (chicken tenders), or cheese sticks with fries. The price includes a small drink.
"After you taste our food, you will enjoy the true taste of the food. My business partner, Dino Eddin, is from Bologna, Italy. Food is culture, not just to fill the stomach. Going out to eat is a celebration, an event," Krayem said.