One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “If you could live off one cuisine for the rest of your life, which would it be?” And what’s my answer?
I love it so much. It always has a fresh taste, has so many different types of food, and is good whether you are hot or cold. Imagine my excitement when I booked my trip to Greece…I was floored! I was counting down the days to holding a sweet, sweet gyro in my hands, and when I would be sipping a frappe in the hot, mid-afternoon sun. However, I don’t think anything could prepare me for just how good it actually was. Everything tasted better, had so much love in each bite, and stuck out as, “No…THIS is the best thing I’ve eaten so far!”
When I decided to make a food guide to Greece, I didn’t want to target one city or one island. I think all of it compliments each other, and each place I visited had its own special take on each dish. Conflicted on how to write this article, I settled on a unique idea that I think will fully encapsulate my love of Greek food: the ultimate Greek meal.
Moussaka has always been a little “meh” to me. If given the option between a gyro and moussaka, I would go for the gyro every time. And then again and again. When we landed in Athens, we dropped our luggage at the hotel, walked over to Krasopoulio tou Kokkora, and flopped down at one of the outdoor tables. Our bellies were empty and our eyes big, so we ordered a little bit of everything. At first, we were one of the only tables there. But while we waited for our food, large tables filled up with Greeks and Greek tour guides excitedly telling the family they were showing around, “THIS is where I like to eat for dinner.” We knew in that moment we were in good hands. Enter the moussaka that changed my life. A thick slab with golden potatoes as a crust, a delicious meat sauce as a filler, and a gorgeous béchamel sauce to top it all off arrived in front of me and I DUG IN. Each bite was better than the last, and melted on my tongue as I ate more and more. You know that feeling when you tell yourself, “I should really stop eating because I know I will have a stomach ache later,”? I definitely had that thought, but chose to forge on, and lick my plate clean. Did I have a belly ache after from the expansion going on in my gut? Yes. Was it worth it for this moussaka? Absolutely.
Ah yes, gyros. My one true love that never lets me down. Nothing excites me more than walking into a Mediterranean restaurant and seeing the flattened and stacked lamb meat spinning on the spit, dripping in fat, but cooking perfectly even. I love tzatziki sauce, the fresh cut vegetables that go inside the wrap, and the oddly stuffed French fry that offers a cut of salt and crunch to the wrap. Okay, now I’m drooling. We found Mylos Traditional Grill on the island of Paros out of pure luck. Never reading about it in guides and not hearing about it once around town, we nearly missed this amazing little taverna. While in Paros, it rained. Hard. As in we were literally in the middle of a hurricane while we were there. Sitting in our villa (Paros Nereids Villas), we were growing hungry and annoyed with every passing hour. Deciding that we wanted to find a good gyro, something we can always agree on, my husband and I googled “Paros Gyros”. Up pops this place. With nothing to lose and time to kill, we hopped in our rental car and traversed to the other side of the island. We found a small public parking lot next to a run-down windmill, parked, and walked up to the door. Despite not being open, they saw us standing in the rain, and welcomed us in, letting us know they weren’t quite open, but we could get in from out of the rain. Sitting inside watching the downpour, we quickly scanned the menu, but both opted for their famous gyro. In ten minutes flat, the gyro came out on a tin bowl, covered in fresh and hot fries. When I bit into the gyro, I was immediately in a better mood. The pita was fluffy, the meat was freshly carved, and the vegetables inside were simple, yet complimentary. The fries came with a dusting of what I suspected to be salt and paprika, and were the perfect accompaniment to the gyro. The true testament to the gyro here? We came for lunch again the next day.
Have you ever tasted something so simple and uncontrived, yet the flavors, the texture, and the memory of it sticks with you to this day? That’s how the dessert was at Tsitsanis Tavern in Prodromos. Truth be told, you’ll never find this place on a map or in any guidebook. It is a tucked away restaurant in a small, dimly lit town that most people wouldn’t even consider if they drove by. But my oh my was this place amazing. Recommended by our tour guide at Kamarantho Farm, this place was exactly what we were looking for. Authentic, small, and damn delicious. Walking in we were the only Americans…hell we were the only non-Greeks in the joint! If you don’t know what that means, it means that the food was about to be as close to down home cooking as you can get. We sipped and munched our way through an excellent dinner, once more ordering one of everything off the menu (I was told, however, that this is the Greek way to do things, so no shame here, my husband and I wanted to fully embrace the culture). When it came time for dessert, we somewhat looked at each other, stuffed to the brim, and contemplated if we wanted dessert. Our waiter returned after letting us think a minute and letting our food settle, and we said we would share a dessert, for you know, moderation or something like that. When the dessert was set on our table, we were perplexed, but dug in anyways. Our mouths dropped open. We made some embarrassing noises at that table as we not so ashamedly ate in delight. Nothing more than a mixture of Greek yogurt from the grocery store topped with a cherry reduction, this was manna from heaven. Silky smooth, sweet, savory, and all around delightful, this was the best dessert we have had in we can’t even remember how long.
Cue another blustery and rainy day on Paros (I told you, we were in the middle of a SERIOUS hurricane). Attempting to make the most of our time, we chose to strap on sneakers and sweaters, and head into town in the hope of catching a beautiful ray of sunshine between clouds. We stumbled on a small restaurant with tables spilling out into the cobblestone street. Despite the crummy weather, most of the tables were occupied. Interesting. People sat outside in drizzle to eat here? It must be good! We grabbed a seat and were greeted by our waiter. Taking our order, he made his way back inside, and brought out our side dish first. Sounding utterly boring to me, but ordered by my husband, I grabbed a spoon, and decided to dip into the warm bowl of chickpeas sitting on my table. Wait, this wasn’t boring at all! With steam rising off my spoon, the chickpeas sat in a gorgeous buttery broth enhanced by local and fresh herbs, bringing life to what I once believed to be chalky protein balls (have you had plain ones on your salad at a salad bar? Yuck!). I have tried to replicate this dish with zero success. My only hope of having something like this again is to trace my way back to Charoula’s Tavern, and having the chickpeas cooked by the same woman who has been cooking them for years.
Appetizers and Drinks:
Any list would be remiss without a mention of Peskesi. Crete has a rugged beauty to it that has hindered it from becoming Instafamous…but that’s why I like it. With that rugged beauty comes a deep and rich culture that has been baked for centuries, and is showing us it’s glory today. Peskesi was the only place we dined that required a reservation. I watched as hopeful diners walked up the narrow and dark alleyway to the entrance, to be turned away as there were no tables available…on a Tuesday night. We walked into the rustic yet refined restaurant, and were seated right away. Our first sip was on a carefully selected wine that was as refreshing as it was fruity. Not much of a wine person, I opted for what would seem like the “easiest” to sip on and feign a classy upbringing. I chose a delicious rose, and it was brought to my table immediately. I took a sip and fell in love. It was light, it was fruity, and it was crisp. All things that I love in an alcoholic beverage. Next, we were presented with the house raki. Now if you don’t know what raki is, it is a drink made in Greece out of cranberries or grapes, and can sometimes be found under the name “suma”. Strong and usually served as an apperatif (an after-dinner sip), the raki at Peskesi was something different. The waiter told me it was their house special, the rose flavored raki. Having only tasted raki at smaller establishments, I had only known it as a clear liquid that burns as it makes its way down your throat. Wanting to once again take in the culture, I sipped this raki, and knew immediately this one was different. It tasted like rose water, and had a floral aftertaste. It didn’t taste like perfume, but like a refreshing water with a little bit of a kick at the end. Damn was it tasty.
Peskesi also won me over for its phenomenal appetizers. Unsure what to order, we let our waiter navigate the menu for us, and make his recommendations for our tasting pleasure. We chose the zucchini flowers stuffed with mizithra cheese. They came out as gorgeous as they sounded, three zucchini flowers filled with a Greek version of cream cheese, and softly fried to the lightest of golden browns. These. Were. Phenomenal. From time to time my husband and I will be sitting and munching on a green salad and reminisce about these zucchini flowers. Savory and cheesy, these are an absolute must on the menu. We also ordered the maggiri, which was described as a traditional Cretan pasta. What they didn’t mention is that this handmade pasta is cooked al dente, and bathed in a sumptuous butter sauce. This sauce was so good, I asked our waiter to leave the bowl on the table so I could soak it up with my pita at my meal. Whether or not that looked classy, I really couldn’t have cared less. Not to mention, you know you’re doing dinner right when the table next to you tells their waiter “We’ll have everything they ordered.”
You know how foods tastes when your mom or grandmother makes it for you, and it is based on recipes that their family has had for decades? That’s how the food is at Taverna T’armi tou Kallikrati. Owned by a woman, and tables waited by her son, if you step inside the restaurant, you will see it adorned with pictures of her son, and that you are eating out of her own personal kitchen. We had spent a day hiking the Kallikratis Gorge, made a death-defying drive on hairpin turns to make it to the top of the mountain and have a cold glass of lemonade at Wild Herbs of Crete, and decided that we were more than hungry. At the top of the mountain, there isn’t really even a village to speak of, and it is not uncommon to see a goat being slaughtered in a front yard for lunch and dinner. We drove down a one way back road to find Taverna, and walked up to the humble oasis on top of the mountain. We sat, ordered from the simple menu, and watched as trucks with dogs in the back drove by, and birds chirped away in the nearby trees. Then they came out. The amazing zucchini slices. Fried to a goldeny brown, these little slices of heaven landed on my tongue and I crunched them with delight. Soft, light, unfussy, and so easy to dig into, these were the highlight of my meal. Many others think so as well, considering this far flung taverna is considered to be the best in all of Crete.
There were a few more places we dined that were just as incredible that did not make it on this list. There was the lovely Platanos Tavern and Rooms located on the highest peak in all of Crete. We drove here in the dead of night (bad call), and the hairpin lined road was only lit by the moon and our headlights. Careful if you drive here at night as goats walk along the road, and sometimes lay down on the center line. What we got, however, was an adorable little family owned restaurant in the tiny village of Anopoli, strung with bright garden lights, and housed under gorgeous vines and trellises.
Another spot we loved was Taverna Gyrogiali. Located right at the entrance to the city center of Hora Sfakion, this little gyro stand houses only about 10 tables, and all are bursting with food. You will not believe the spread that is sat down in front of you after you order, and the quality is impeccable. You can also sit along the back wall of windows, and look out onto the ocean while enjoying your dinner.
Lastly, one of my favorite stops along our drive from Agia Galini to Sfakia was Panoramic Café Taverna. A simple little stop along the way, this place is a refuge from being on the road all day. What looks to be a small, simple café sitting on the edge of a cliff, turns out being a lovely café with a view for miles. Sit out on the back deck and enjoy my favorite item from there, a frappe, where they use the traditional frappe recipe (Nescafé, sugar, ice, and water), and serve it over ice cream of your choice. This place is incredible, and had visitors flowing in and out our entire stay. Not to mention, the bathrooms are immaculate too!
Food is so special to me. It warms me, gets me face to face time with friends and family. It takes me to special times in my life, and helps me create new ones I will remember for years to come. That’s the great thing about Greek food. It is unfussy, yet has complex flavors that imprint distinct memories on your brain. Writing this article was the best trip down memory lane I have ever taken while writing, and it has to do with the special ties that can be formed with food. Food will always be a big part of travel for me, and I love discovering new and exciting cuisines that fill my heart and my belly with love.