NEW YORK – If you decide out of curiosity to find out what impact the Athens 2004 Olympic Games have made to the US public opinion, just visit on of the many news search engines, type the word “Greek” and spend some time to read the various newspaper and news services articles. You will find out that in almost every paper around the country, not only the Olympic Games, but Greece, its culture, foods and wines, are equally celebrated.
With very few exceptions, the articles praise Greeks for completing the Olympic venues on time (to be precise, on the 11th hour), the security measures, the beauty of Athens and most of all, the deep affection of the Greek people to the Olympics.
At the same time, the articles pay tribute to the Greek American community, its impact to the broader American society and they call on their readers to use the 16 days of the Olympics for an acquaintance with Greek cuisine, foods and wines.
There is no doubt that Americans rediscover both Greece and Greek America. And if the Olympic Games conclude successfully on the 29th of August, the benefits for Hellenism could be enormous.
With these few words, lets browse on some of the articles posted last week in various US newspapers, on Greek America.
New York Newsday on August 12, 2004, dedicates the front page of its second part to Greek American food industry, with the triumphant title “Hail to the Greeks, Celebrating the cuisine of the 2004 Olympic hosts.” Newsday’s section includes a series of articles to some of the most successful Greek America restaurateurs, like, Steve Tsolis, Nicola Kotsonis, of “Periyali”, Costas Spiliadis of “Milos”, and John Livanos of “.Molyvos”. The article concludes that “New York’s Greek restaurants raise the bar” by offering high quality of food, wine and service and it’s not going to be long before similar high class places will open in Long Island.
In another article (An immigrant’s Odyssey” Newsday explores how Greek American entrepreneurs like John Livanos “took an American classic, like the diner, and made it their own”.
On the other hand, Moscahlaidis, president of Krinos Foods, gives a lesson on Greek Food and spices, promoting them to the New York consumers. Moscahlaidis is one of the 16 members of Greek Food & Wine Institute, based in Long Island City, an organization that tries “to educate the press about Greek food beyond feta cheese, phyllo dough and Kalamata olives”.
Moscahlaidis tells Newsday that “Most people aren’t aware of the wide variety” in Greek food. The institute has co-sponsored conferences and seminars with Oldways, a nonprofit organization that promotes traditional, healthful diets. The institute has also brought chefs from Greece to showcase their food at the James Beard House in Manhattan.
“The institute has done the work that the government should have done,” in getting the word out about Greek food and wine, Moscahlaidis said. “The Greek government has not done a very good job …
“We are at a crossroads here in the United States. We either have no image at all or a poor image.”
THE TSOLIS STORY
Newsday says that the story of the Greek high quality restaurants begins in Greenwich Village. In 1983, Steve Tsolis, Nicola Kotsoni and Pino Luongo opened a Tuscan restaurant on West 11th Street called Il Cantinori, one of the first authentic regional Italian restaurants in New York. While Luongo, the chef, was from Florence, his partners were from Greece. Soon, Il Cantinori’s customers began to pester Tsolis and Kotsoni, “Why don’t you open a Greek restaurant like this one, with fine Greek food?”
Kotsoni saw a lot of similarities between the cuisines of Tuscany and Greece: Both relied on quality ingredients and simple preparations. “We wanted to apply Il Cantinori’s philosophy to Greek food,” she recalled. In 1987 they did.
Periyali (Greek for seashore) on 20th Street was like no other Greek restaurant in New York. It was cool and elegant with whitewashed walls and tiled accents. The low ceiling was obscured by billowing white sheets that gave the dining room a distinctly sea-going feel. There was not a Greek statue or model of the Parthenon in sight.
The menu used familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways. “We were cooking the same cuisine as the restaurants in Astoria, but with only the best meat, the best beans, the best fish, the best Greek olive oil,” Tsolis said. “We made the presentation beautiful. And we cooked everything fresh to order.”
There was no one cook in New York who possessed all the knowledge that the new restaurant required; Periyali needed the talents of both Greek and American chefs. Tsolis and Kotsoni’s partner Charlie Palmer (who eventually ascended to the highest ranks at his Manhattan townhouse restaurant, Aureole) turned to his Greek friend Alex Gourias.
Palmer knew that Gourias’ parents owned a restaurant on the island of Patmos. “If we could bring Alex’s mom here,” Palmer said, “I could take those ideas, refine them a little bit, and come up with a cuisine that reflected the flavors of Greece but with better presentation.”
So Victor and Irene Gourias came to New York and, together with Palmer and Thomas Xanthopolous, still Periyali’s executive chef, developed a menu that adapted traditional Greek flavors and techniques to modern tastes.
The plan worked. Periyali was a sensation.
The next case involves Milos Restaurant and Costas Spiliadis, who came to New York from Montreal.
Spiliadis had left Patras in the Peloponnese in 1966 to study sociology at New York University. When he began to sample the Greek food served in New York in the ’60s, he was shocked. “Americans had a particular image of Greek cuisine that was based on very unsophisticated and cheap food,” he said. “It rarely went beyond badly made moussaka or the cliched gyro and souvlaki.”
In Montreal, where Spiliadis had moved to pursue a master’s degree, he found the same problem; the misunderstanding of Greek culture deeply offended him. In 1980, he opened a restaurant called Milos after a Cycladian Island that he had never visited but whose name appealed to him.
Spiliadis’ business plan was a curious one. He wanted to overturn every notion that non- Greeks had about Greek food. He began to cast about for a scheme that would by needs be expensive. The answer was fish. Good fresh fish always cost a fortune. And, to jack up the price even further, Spiliadis began having fish flown in from the Aegean waters surrounding Greece.
Milos became a huge success, and Spiliadis decided to open another restaurant, this time in Manhattan. In the mid-1990s, he started scouting for locations and finally settled on a soaring unfinished space on 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
In 1997, Spiliadis opened Estiatorio Milos (Greek for “Restaurant Milos”), which he acknowledged was a mouthful for most Americans. “People used to call me Gus all the time,” he recalled, “and I would say, ‘my name is Costas. I make the effort to call you Bob, so you call me Costas.’ Calling my restaurant Estiatorio Milos was my revenge.”
Like Periyali, Milos challenged New Yorkers’ preconceptions about Greek restaurants. Instead of a decor that conjured up a Greek fishing village, it called to mind a more Olympian ideal. The ceilings were so high that they dwarfed the umbrellas that (needlessly) sheltered some of the tables. Huge urns had been painstakingly transported from Greece and arranged in titanic still-lifes on the marble floors. The centerpiece of the restaurant was a vast display of pristinely fresh fish reclining on a bed of ice.
The restaurant was a hit, and last January, Spiliadis opened a Milos in Athens.
John Livanos and Molyvos Restaurant is the third success story of Newsday. In 1992, this veteran of the New York diner scene opened Oceana in Manhattan with his son, Nikolas, and James Galileo. Oceana, a seafood restaurant in the “new American” vein, quickly became one of the city’s most respected fish houses.
But Livanos was plagued by something that might be termed culinary guilt. “I kept reading things, in The New York Times, in New York Magazine, that criticized Greeks,” he recalled. “‘We own so many coffee shops and diners,’ he paraphrased, ‘why aren’t there any good Greek restaurants?'” Livanos said to his sons, “We are going to open up a Greek restaurant.”
For inspiration, Livanos turned to his hometown on Lesbos – Molyvos – which was to become his new restaurant’s name. He leased a large space on Seventh Avenue just around the corner from Carnegie Hall, and set about transforming it into a restaurant that was both swanky and homey. Decorative elements were flown in from Greece; brand-new walls and floors were painstakingly distressed to suggest a taverna that had been around since Prohibition.
Molyvos opened in 1997 and quickly joined Milos as a Greek restaurant that could compete with the city’s best French and Italian. The restaurants, less than three blocks apart, dominate New York’s Greek dining scene like two midtown colossi.
Sacramento Bee visits a couple o Greek places in town, exploring Greek delicacies and promising “Olympic-size snacking opportunities”.
“What better way to get the flavor of the Games than with Greek food? “, the article asks.
Susanna Hoffman, author of “The Olive and the Caper” says that “Greek cooking is the foundation of all Mediterranean diets,” and “The Greeks taught the Italians how to cook.”
Cathy Tsakopoulos-LaGesse, co-owner with her husband, Leo, of the Greek Village Inn says that one of her fondest childhood memories is working around the kitchen table with her mother and two sisters in their home in Glen Ellyn, Ill., making tyropitas (a flaky cheese pastry) for large parties”
Tsakopoulos-LaGesse says: “We’d make hundreds and hundreds. You couldn’t have a party without them. They’re wonderful for munching.”
Tsakopoulos-LaGesse takes pride in presenting authentic foods of Greece in her restaurant and visits Greece frequently. She’s heading there soon “primarily to attend a wedding, although I hope to get to some of the Games, too, because I am a big sports fan.”
Michael Vlahakis, a native of Metamorphosis, Greece, and the manager of Yianni’s Bar & Grill in Carmichael, describes Greek foods as “incredibly adaptable,” and says that many are ideal for TV sports-watching.
THE WINES OF GREECE
Michael Franz, in Wednesdays “Washington Post” says that “If you are eating Greek food, you’ve got a good reason to try Greek wine. If you are just trying to get into the Olympic spirit, you’ve got another reason. However, my experience suggests that the only reason you really need to try Greek wine is a bottle of Greek wine. Because Greek wines rock”.
He sates that Greek wines are among the world’s most distinctive and food-friendly wines and are seriously underappreciated by most American consumers.
“If your recollection of Greek wine carries the baggage of Retsina (a traditional wine containing pine resin that has its defenders, among whom I do not number) or of something oxidized or awkwardly sweet from the bad old days, I’m pleased to report such stuff has given way to fresh, vivid wines, both white and red.
Vine training and winemaking are very ancient practices in Greece. Archaeological evidence indicates that wine was significant in Greek and Minoan culture well before the advent of the ancient Olympic games, as long as 3,000 years ago.
Winemaking in Greece has continued uninterrupted since that time, though centuries-long occupation of the country by the teetotaling Ottoman Turks curtailed it considerably and also severed its connection to Europe. Independence and establishment of a modern Greek state promised a wine renaissance, but that promise went unfulfilled due to the disruptions of two world wars and a civil war.
Vinous modernity came even later to Greece than to late bloomers such as Portugal and southern Italy, but come it did, and by the 1980s Greek wines began showing dramatic improvements. The prime catalysts were temperature-controlled fermenters and the first generation of scientifically trained viticulturalists and winemakers. But the deepest roots of the current resurgence spring from the land itself.
Franz concludes his article with a presentation of many Greek brands one may find in the US liquor stores.