The twin zeds in Z&Z Manoushe Bakery do not stand for anyone connected with the small, family-run Rockville shop. The letters are not a reference to the owners or to beloved relatives who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil. No, the Z&Z in question refers to “zayt” and “za’atar,” an oil and a spice blend, two items that grace just about every table in the Levant, and beyond.
Just ask Ronnie, Danny and Johnny Dubbaneh, the brothers behind Z&Z. One of their most vivid childhood memories involves their father, Issa, sitting at the breakfast table inside the family home in Rockville, following his usual morning ritual. He would take a piece of bread, perhaps made fresh by his wife, Muna, and dunk it in olive oil, finishing it with a dredge in za’atar fragrant with wild thyme and sumac. This bite — warm, herbal and citrusy, evoking lands far from suburban Maryland — would awaken the senses like no cup of coffee ever could.
The flavors that Issa craved every morning are the same ones found on za’atar manoushe, the classic Levantine flatbread topped with olive oil and a generous dusting of the namesake spice blend. Za’atar manoushe just happens to be the signature dish at Z&Z, a shop influenced by the Dubbaneh family’s elders yet one they never could have opened themselves. The D.C. market just wasn’t ready for it in their time.
You see, Ronnie, Danny and Johnny come from a family with a long history in the restaurant business. Their father’s side of the family came from the Palestinian territories, their mother’s from Jordan. They were immigrants who knew the challenges and limitations of trying to sell food to diners in the Washington area. Immigrants who wanted better lives for their children and encouraged them to pursue careers in which their clothes wouldn’t smell of fryer oil at the end of the day. Immigrants who realized that, in the end, they had little control over the passions of their sons.
Food “was just where our hearts were,” Danny told me one afternoon during a phone call.
But Ronnie, Danny and Johnny also had time on their side. Unlike their father and maternal grandfather — men who owned carryouts specializing in fried chicken, burgers and subs — Ronnie, 36, Danny, 34, and Johnny, 29, came of age at a time when the American palate is open to suggestion and possibility.
Danny and Johnny, the brothers responsible for day-to-day operations, jumped at the opportunity to devote their lives to manoushe, in ways that earlier generations could never have fathomed: They quit white-collar jobs to chase after the perfect flatbread. They experimented for weeks, which turned into years, on dough recipes. They scoured the Middle East for herbs and spices, which they have combined into a custom za’atar blend. They sampled countless olive oils until they landed on a buttery Tunisian brand that aligns well with their particular za’atar.
Their efforts — at researching Levantine foodways and then pushing ever so gently against their boundaries — have culminated in a flatbread that borrows from street food traditions without being subservient to them. The brothers have created a dough that, by their own admission, is perhaps puffier and more developed than the foldable rounds found on the streets of Lebanon and elsewhere. It’s like manoushe as run through the paces at an artisan pizzeria, and it makes for a superb base no matter what toppings you order.
The place to start at Z&Z is with the za’atar manoushe, appropriately dubbed the “classic.” It’s a flatbread carpeted with za’atar, which will simultaneously tantalize and confound your palate. Z&Z’s spice blend sort of smacks of oregano, but not just oregano. It sort of tastes like thyme, but not unadulterated thyme. Yet whatever herb you detect — or think you detect — it will be cut and complemented with the toasty crackle of sesame seeds and the metallic tang of sumac. The spice mixture makes for a dish like no other.
Eating an entire za’atar manoushe can also lead to palate fatigue, which is partly why I find myself leaning toward other flatbreads at Z&Z. Sometimes I opt for variations on the theme, like the delightfully named Toum Raider, which is basically the classic manoushe accessorized with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, fresh herbs, and parallel lines of toum, the emulsified garlic sauce that vaporizes into pungent cumulus clouds upon first bite.
I’ve eaten my way through the manoushe menu, and I’ve noticed something interesting: The base for the vegetarian flatbreads tends to be softer and chewier than the one for a meat- or cheese-based manoushe, which tends to be more crackerlike. I asked the brothers about this, and they had a simple explanation: The veg-centric manakish (the plural of manoushe) start and finish on the saj, the dome-shaped griddle that radiates heat from the bottom only. By contrast, the flatbread for a meat or cheese option is heated on the saj before its toppings are added; then the fully loaded manoushe is finished in a convection oven to ensure everything is properly cooked. In my experience, the latter technique leads to a drier, crispier crust.
To be honest, I prefer the softer manoushe, which retains more of the earthy, whole-wheat sweetness of the brothers’ dough. But, I must admit, it’s a preference without conviction, because I will gladly wolf down an entire chicken shawarma manoushe, its star ingredient fighting for attention with the brined Arab pickles, pickled turnips and toum, each a force of its own. I also am a fan of the hot halaby honey manoushe, something of a trend-monger among the flatbreads, with its syrupy application of wildflower honey to balance out the Aleppo pepper and sujuk sausage.
Z&Z Manoushe Bakery may have a small footprint, but it has an expansive reach. Its products — Z&Z-branded za’atar, sumac and sea salt — can be purchased online, while its line of frozen manoushe is available at Whole Foods and other stores in the D.C. area. The brothers have built a family business that brings along everyone in the clan. Their enterprise relies on the assistance of sisters DeAnna and Ronia, cousin Michael and even the parents. Their storefront has family history, too. It used to be the location of their grandfather’s shop, Chicken Tonight, which Fayez Khawaja and his son ran for more than two decades.
The expanding Z&Z empire has its benefits, especially for a shop open only four days a week. On those afternoons when you have a hankering, you don’t have to wait for Z&Z to swing open its door. You can heat up a frozen manoushe, which may not compare to one fresh off the saj, but it does a pretty mean impersonation.
Even better, the frozen line includes a “cocktail” manoushe, a half-za’atar and half-cheese flatbread that’s available only as a special-order item at the store. The trick is to fold the cocktail in half before devouring it. The cheese and za’atar meld into one, surrounded on two sides by flatbread. It’s like a Levantine quesadilla, but to the uninitiated, it’s more like finding a new best friend.
Z&Z Manoushe Bakery
1111 Nelson St., Rockville, Md., 301-296-4178; zandzdc.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday through Wednesday.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with about a 1.5-mile trip to the bakery.
Prices: $1 to $25 for everything on the menu or in the market.