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Big Easy In Syosset

Mara Levi sits at the bar of her restaurant, her feet hanging over the black and white checkered floor, enjoying a sandwich and a glass of white wine. She laughs as her son, and restaurant chef, Josh, on the other side of the bar, yells at her for swearing.

“When the kids were little,” Levi laughed, “they had a curse jar that they’d make me put a dollar in every time I swore. They’d take the money and go to the movies.” That lighthearted, kitchen-table spirit imbues Mara’s Homemade, her family-run Southern cuisine restaurant in Syosset. Known for its crawfish boil, Cajun flavor and Arkansas-styled barbeque, Mara’s is The Real Thing. “I eat here every day,” she said with her slight Southern drawl. “We all do.”

Walk into Mara’s, and it’s as though you’ve been transported from the New York suburbs to The Big Easy. The sounds of trumpets and saxophones travel through the restaurant as the soundtrack of the South plays throughout the day. There’s live jazz every Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m.

The aromas of smoked oysters and hot charcoal infuse the air. The big stove and oven are set directly behind the bar so customers can see the flames shoot up from the grill and hear the cracking sound of oysters cooking. Jars of Texas- and Arkansas-style barbeque sauce sit at the corner of the bar ready for purchase. Nets filled with shells hang from the ceiling while Mardi Gras beads draped over the lights give a warm glow to the room.

A patron walks in from outside and sits next to Levi at the bar. “How you doing?”  Levi asks the man. “I’m ready for a beer,” he laughs. Without asking, Levi tells her son to get him a Corona. It’s that kind of place.

Texas natives, the Levi family headed north and set up shop in Manhattan 13 years ago with a restaurant called Java N Jazz, in Union Square. A neighborhood hangout with live jazz and a menu built around home-style recipes, Java N Jazz also sold its own line of food.

“We wanted to be different,” Levi said. After seven years, the Levis took their business east to Syosset. Even as the new kids in the area, Mara’s Homemade quickly established rapport with its new neighbors. Some Manhattan customers even followed them to Long Island.

The operation relies on all members of the family. Hanna, Mara’s daughter, works the front of the house, Levi and Josh collaborate on recipes, and her husband, David, deals with the managerial aspects, such as picking up the live crawfish several times a week, which is flown in directly from the Louisiana gulf. “If it’s not from the gulf, we don’t serve it,” Levi said.

 And when they serve it, it’s quirky, spicy, delicious and fun. Levi describes the barbequed black peppered shrimp as “lick-your-fingers phenomenal.” The meal comes with a warm towelette, as much a necessity and a touch of Southern hospitality. “You’re allowed to get messy here because we help you clean up,” said Levi.  “We encourage getting messy.”

An authentic way to cool your mouth from the spicy shrimp and crawfish is with a cold glass of an Andy Gater craft beer. Mara’s is the only restaurant on Long Island serving the Louisiana barley brew.

Similarly genuine are the ties the family shares with its patrons. The Levis have customers they’ve known since they were single and are now married with children. “We’re really a part of people’s lives,” Levi said.     

Underscoring this are the walls of the restaurant, with one especially packed with faces of customers, friends and symbols of New Orleans, such as Saints posters, Mardi Gras beads and famous jazz musicians. “This is their wall,” Levi said. “People bring me stuff, I put it up.” It’s a visual expression of Crescent City culture, which is all about food, music and spirit. “We’re just trying to keep it alive,” Levi said.

Mara’s Homemade is at 236 W. Jericho Turnpike in Syosset. For more information, please call 682-9200 or visit www.marashomemade.com.