The Italian restaurant built over the ruins of a Crusader castle

In the ruins of the fortress, Layousse built a modern-day Italian kitchen equipped with a pizza oven and the latest culinary technology

CHRISTMAS TREE, my Christmas tree: Salma Assaf in her restaurant, Chateau de Roi (photo credit: DIANA BLETTER)
CHRISTMAS TREE, my Christmas tree: Salma Assaf in her restaurant, Chateau de Roi
(photo credit: DIANA BLETTER)
On top of a hill in the Western Galilee town of Mi’ilya are the ruins of a Crusader castle. And in the midst of the ancient stones is now an authentic Italian trattoria, Chateau de Roi, or the King’s Castle, owned by Mi’ilya resident Salma Assaf, 67, who said she has finally achieved her dream. Or at least one of them.
Assaf, an energetic widow with three children, opened the restaurant four months ago after working on it since 2002. In the process of doing renovations for the restaurant, local archaeologists discovered the largest winery dating from Crusader times.
To open the restaurant, Assaf joined forces with her best friend’s son, Elian Layousse, who was born and raised in Mi’ilya but who has lived more than 30 years in Padua, Italy, where he has worked as a chef in his own restaurant.
In the ruins of the fortress, Layousse built a modern-day Italian kitchen equipped with a pizza oven and the latest culinary technology. Layousse imported all the equipment needed for an Italian trattoria. He makes all his own bread and pasta, and serves gourmet dishes such as beef filet with porcini mushrooms and truffles, risotto with cream of green beans, and roasted leg of lamb. He also incorporates local delicacies such as freekeh, or roasted wheat.
On a recent afternoon, Assaf showed a visitor around the restaurant, with spectacular views of the Galilee valley, as well as the ruins underneath. She talked with boundless excitement about her belief that every person should follow his or her dreams. Her role model, she said, is Mrs. Raya Strauss Ben Dror, who helped her and who heads Ozrot HaGalil, a project that encourages increasing tourism in the Western Galilee.
“If a woman like her lives in this world,” said Assaf, “There is hope.”
The restaurant is right next to the church at the top of Mi’ilya, home to about 3,000 Melkites, or Greek Catholics. The Melkites trace their history back to the first century CE, when Peter introduced Christianity to Antioch, Turkey. The town is near Ma’alot-Tarshiha, north of Highway 89.
Since the restaurant opened in August, there have already been international visitors from Europe as well as China and Korea. It might seem like an instant success, but Assaf has worked steadily on the project since 2002, when she and her late husband, Laviv, decided to renovate the ruins and see what they could do with the rubble.
ASSAF SAID they worked faithfully, a little each day, watching the project grow, “the way you watch a baby grow.”
Even after her husband passed away, Assaf kept on working. People in the village, she said, thought she was majnooni, the Arabic word for crazy, for wasting money on the project. At the time, there was little tourism in Mi’ilya. There was little interest in tourism and few people thought tourists would come to the town. But Assaf said she closed her ears and listened to her own voice.
At about the same time, a local archaeologist, Rabei Khamisy, led a community-sponsored project to restore the castle built by King Baldwin III, who ruled Jerusalem during the Second Crusades, from 1143 to 1163. While excavating under Assaf’s property, Khamisy found what is believed to be the largest winery in the Galilee dating back to Crusader times. The stone floors used for treading on the wine and a storage wine pit are thought to be even more ancient. Diners in the restaurant can view the archaeological finds while eating dinner through glass partitions in the floor.
Layousse, the chef, said he was eager to help Assaf develop the restaurant into something special, using local produce but offering “more than the average local restaurant.”
Assaf, for her part, said she is not “obsessive about food.” She has a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern history and worked in various offices for many years. She said she has always been inspired by her father, who went to ulpan at the age of 65 to improve his Hebrew and then worked as a bookkeeper in a law office for many years. He passed away recently at the age of 92.
“There was no limit to his dreams,” recalled Assaf. “When I asked him for money to continue with the renovations, he used to tell me to take it today, because the project will cost more tomorrow.”
Assaf plans to renovate more of the ancient ruins around the restaurant, working with other residents of the village. Her goal is build several boutique rooms in the ruins, offering beautiful views of the countryside. She said she keeps working, relying on three qualities: patience, stubborness and faith.
“I have even more dreams,” she said. “It isn’t important if I accomplish them. Every day I do what I can.”
Chateau De Roi Restaurant in Mi’ilya is open every day except Mondays. There is also a pizzeria open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Phone: (04) 885-0088.