Athens West, 2663 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 826-2560. Open Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"Greeks love to talk about food," says Peter Georgatsos from behind the deli case at the new market Athens West. "Food importing is our family's business, so when my Greek band played weddings and festivals, I'd always take notice when the conversation turned to food shopping." Georgatsos' eavesdropping has recently come in handy. Six months ago, he and his partner, Oristis Hillas, acquired the 20-year-old Athens West, Orange County's only Greek market and delicatessen. The young men have improved both the look of the place and the inventory. Doubling the size of this once simple storefront, they've turned it into an airy, spacious room with shimmery sea-blue tile flooring, pristine white walls and high-tech fixtures.
One case in the long bank of built-in upright coolers and freezers is still empty. "We can't get our microwaveable frozen dinners from Greece until the country's shipping strike is over," Hillas explains.
The expanded deli section offers catering, hot gyros to go and an assortment of house-made salads. There is thick homemade Greek yogurt and 10 kinds of baklava pastries. The selection of Greek wines has been expanded. And the owners have added their favorite domestically produced Greek products.
Most interesting is the store's small but growing collection of boutique food items from Greek cottage industries--tiny marinated wild onions, for instance, or walnut-stuffed eggplants. Obtained through Fotis & Son, the Georgatsos family's importing company, founded by Peter's father, Fotis Georgatsos, many of the specialties are sought out by Fotis' brother, Antonios, who lives in Greece.
The company was launched in 1976 after Fotis Georgatsos sampled some Greek extra-virgin olive oil in Chicago. Its flavor brought back memories of the food he grew up on in Greece. In those days such oil was unavailable in Los Angeles. With the help of his brother, Georgatsos brought in 40 kilos of cold-pressed oil--the maximum allowed each family--to use at home and for gifts. The response was so positive that Georgatsos decided to market the oil.
Most stores, Georgatsos says, at first told him, "it'll never sell, it's too expensive." Undaunted, he traveled to Greece to organize packaging and acceptable labeling for the United States market. His experience as an aerospace engineer (he worked on the shuttle and other space projects for Rockwell International) came in handy as he set about designing the application of non-dripping pouring spouts for the olive oil cans.
To stimulate interest, the family distributed samples at Greek festivals and church events and to Greek organizations. Nowadays, although it has never been advertised, Georgatsos' Olga-brand cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is a familiar sight in most Greek and Italian grocery stores, as well as in specialty shops.
The link between Greek cooking and Armenian, Lebanese and other cuisines of the Middle East shows up especially in the repertoire of mezedhes (the dh is pronounced like the th in "this"), or snack/appetizers. All these countries, influenced by the cuisine at the court of the Ottoman Empire, have the custom of offering a selection of small dishes before the main course or along with drinks. Centered around pita bread, cheese and olives, mezedhes might include ground-meat mixtures called kofta in the Middle East and kephtedhes in Greece. The selection can be a few nuts or an opulent spread of salads and even grilled meats, enough for a whole meal. You can easily put together a fabulous spread with many prepared foods from the shop.
Found in the upright cooler case or in the deli, these include tabbouleh, the cracked-wheat-and-parsley salad; marinated artichokes; hummus , the creamy dip made from crushed chickpeas; garlic; sesame paste and lemon juice; and a village salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, Kalamata olives and feta cheese. Specify which type of feta you prefer from the selection below.
Also look for:
* Tzatziki : a mixture of homemade Greek-style yogurt, shredded cucumber, garlic and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil that you dip into with pita.
* Fassolia Gigantes : These giant beans, slightly larger than mature fava beans, are stewed in a wonderful herbal tomato sauce. Serve them slightly warm or at room temperature.
* Dolmadhes : A simple mixture of seasoned rice and pine nuts is wrapped in vine leaves and simmered in lemon juice and olive oil.
* Lakerdes : Thick slices of salt-cured bonito that are best cut in tiny cubes, marinated in olive oil and lemon juice and splashed with a dash of Greek oregano. Because it is so salty, the fish is usually served with a variety of other mezedhes.
* Olives: By now the pointy black Kalamata-style olives and the crisp, green, lemony Nafplions are familiar to almost everyone. Athens West carries olives from the Kalamata region itself, as opposed to Kalamata- style olives that may come from other areas. In the deli case are the fleshy giant Kalamatas, the largest obtainable. Smaller sizes are available too, loose or packed in brine in their plastic shipping barrels.
Try the store's large black olives. The are packed in a spicy oil-vinegar-and-brine marinade that makes a good dressing to sprinkle over Greek-style salads or sliced tomatoes.
* Taramosalata : Tarama , the cured cod roe caviar of Greece, is sold in 8- and 16-ounce jars. It's the main ingredient in taramosalata , a creamy dip of the roe blended with olive oil, fresh bread crumbs and lemon juice. The shop also sells commercially made taramosalata.
* Loukanika : This pungent Greek-style pork sausage is flavored with wine, spices and orange peel. Grill it and cut it into one-inch-long segments.
* Spanakopitta and Tyropitta : Several brands of the spinach-and-cheese or plain cheese filo-wrapped pastries come frozen and ready to bake. The packages have clear directions.
* Nuts and Seeds: Somehow smoke-house almonds, which the store packs and sells at a remarkably low price, have worked their way into the more traditional meze favorites that include crunchy roasted chickpeas, melon seeds and plain almonds. There are also spicy pistachio nuts in their shells along with more common nuts.
* Pickled Peppers: An essential ingredient on the meze table. Look for the delightful banana wax peppers, bulbous cherry peppers, peperoncini (which the Greeks say were borrowed from them by the Italians) among the colorful selection.
* Walnut-Stuffed Baby Eggplant: These delicate little morsels are among the Fotis & Son finds, as are their Imported Greek Peppers, which have been roasted over charcoal and peeled before being marinated.
* Herring: Cold-smoked over hickory, these herring come from Canada. They need to be filleted and cut into bite-sized pieces for the meze table. Some love the smoky flavor of the bones and eat them like potato chips when drinking ouzo.
In the cooler case you find large foil baking pans with ready-to-bake moussaka, sauteed eggplant slices layered with meat sauce and a custard-like cheese rich topping. Pastitsio , the lasagna of Greece, made with the robust Greek tubular pasta immersed in a meat and tomato sauce, is seasoned with garlic and cinnamon then topped with a cheese-rich bechamel.
Raising cattle is difficult in the rugged, mountainous, often arid terrain of Greece, and sheep's milk is the dominant ingredient for cheese-making. For centuries the isolated, self-sufficient Greek towns and villages developed their own variations on the traditional cheeses.
At Athens West you find a wide range of imported sheep's milk cheese and even regional styles of the same cheese. I compared them in a sort of horizontal tasting and found the flavor of the same cheese can vary widely from region to region.
* Feta: The familiar tangy, young cheese is cured in a brine of whey and salt. If you plan to keep it more than a day or two, ask for some of the brine to store it in. The shop's seven fetas include the commonly seen French, Bulgarian and domestic versions as well as four from different regions of Greece. With the help of co-owner Hillas, I rated the creaminess, saltiness, tang and texture of each.
--The Barrel Feta from Northern Greece and the well-known cheese-making Dodoni area in Central Greece (due east of Corfu and south of Yugoslavia) had the most complex flavor. Its peppery bite is shaded with the underlying taste of an oak wood barrel in which it is cured and shipped. Barrel Feta has a medium tang, is not too salty and is among the creamiest.
--The Voskos Feta comes from the area around the central Greek town of Larissa, east of Dodoni. Of the imported fetas, this had the lightest flavor with the least taste of sheep's milk, and also the least creaminess. Its effect is rather zingy, almost lemony.
--The Parnassou-style, from south central Greece near Delphi and the famed Mt. Parnassos, has a distinct sheep's milk flavor, is mellow and not too salty.
--Dodnis Feta, from Ionia, Greece, wasn't available when I was in the store, but co-owner Georgatsos describes its flavor as tangy, like Bulgarian Feta, but not as salty and not as creamy.
--Bulgarian Feta had a creamy texture and the boldest, saltiest, tangiest flavor, which some describe as reminiscent of a barnyard, meaning the sheep's milk flavor is pronounced.
--French Feta was dainty by comparison, less salty, less tangy and less creamy.
--Domestic Feta, a cow's milk cheese, was the mildest of all and, for some palates, the most pleasant.
* Kasseri : This "cooked" sheep's milk cheese is a cousin of Italian Provolone. The flavorful, slightly tangy cheese is preferred by Greeks on pizza and as a table cheese. Like feta, each regional version has its own character.
--The Parnassou-style, from the central Greek cheese-making area near Larissa, had the most complex taste with a nice balance of tart, salty and nutty flavors.
--The Mytilini-style from the island of Lesbos, close to Turkey, was blander yet quite salty.
--Thesgal brand was the most mellow with just a slight tang.
* Kefalotiri : The best Kefalotiri comes from Ioanina and Dodoni in central Greece. When well aged, this dense cheese is wonderful for grating onto pastas. I tasted a domestic version purchased elsewhere; it was salty and totally lacked the balance of slightly tangy and rich nut-like flavors of the import. Many Greeks use Kefalotiri for the flamed or fried cheese dish saganaki , although others prefer the harder Graviera.
* Kefalograviera : From the same region as Kefalotiri comes the best version of this richly flavored pale-yellow cheese used almost exclusively as a table cheese.
* Graviera : The finest sheep's milk Graviera comes from the towns of Khania (the Greek spelling looks like Xania) and Iraklion in Crete, where in pre-refrigeration times it was aged in the island's cool caves. The best Graviera is often difficult to obtain, so the shop may have it at irregular intervals. But many Greeks cherish this hard cheese, with a flavor close to aged Jarlsberg, for saganaki , the fried cheese that is often flamed at the table in Greek restaurants. Unlike other cheeses, which need to be coated with flour to prevent them turning into a puddle, Graviera holds its shape when heated. It also makes a superb grating cheese.
* Mizithra : One of Greece's hardest grating cheeses, Mizithra is bone-white with a slightly chewy texture from the high concentration of whey from which it is made. The aged cheese is always grated and used for moussaka, pastitsio and other noodle dishes.
* Manouri : Another cheese from the Dodoni area, Manouri is a delicious fresh cheese, fairly soft and not for the faint of palate. Its high percentage of whey results in a strong sheep's milk flavor. Sofi Kostantinides, owner of Sofi Estiatorion restaurant on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles, says it is best sliced and eaten on good crusty bread, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and topped with a slice of tomato and a sprinkling of rigani (Greek oregano).
In one section of the shop you see beautiful oval jars filled with baby fruits afloat in a clear syrup that look like a rainbow of cabochon stones. Although the preserved fruits can be eaten as jam and spooned over ice cream, these glyka tou koutaliou , or "spoon sweets," are an essential part of the ritual of hospitality in every Greek and Middle Eastern home. Offered on a lace-covered tray in silver bowls with long-handled spoons, they are accompanied by a glass of ice water, a cup of thick Greek coffee and sometimes a glass of liqueur. Each guest spoons some of the fruit into the glass of water or onto a small plate. Many fruits can be used to make these conserves but the tiny ones are considered the choicest.
Sour morello cherries are among the favorites and the cherries used in the spoon sweets are from around Nikoleika, Agion, in northwest Peloponnese. The region is to Greek sour cherries what the Napa Valley is to wine. There are also tiny whole pears, plump whole apricots, thumb's-length eggplants, large red grapes and long scrolls of orange peel and quince.
One jar holds a white substance that looks somewhat like marshmallow cream. This dense syrup, called mastika , is made from gum mastic, which is also sold in small chunks in the spice section as a flavoring for cakes and cookies.
Noodles usually aren't thought of as a Greek mainstay. But Greeks eat plenty of noodles, mainly in the shape of spaghetti, rice-shaped kritharaki (orzo), elbow macaroni and long tubes that resemble thick uncut penne. The Helios-brand tubes, made entirely from durum semolina, are excellent for pastitsio. They are also delicious when simply boiled and mixed with butter and grated Kefalotiri or Mizithra cheese, or topped with lamb stewed in onions and tomatoes with a dash of cinnamon.
* Trahana , a pasta made from sour milk, semolina and eggs, is a first cousin to the Hungarian dumpling tarhonya. Resembling pale, irregularly shaped lentils, it is used in soups made with white wine or broth flavored with a broken chile.
The shop also stocks hylopites , a Greek farmhouse-style noodle made with milk and eggs. In villages this is rolled and cut by hand and stored in cloth bags.
The shop sells many types and brands of olive oils but the pride of the house is, of course, the Georgatsos' own Olga label. The olives used for this oil are grown in prime Kalamata territory near Mani on the southern tip of Peloponnese. Only olives picked at a stage between green and ripe--when the color is reddish to green--are used. Greeks term such oil agouro-elion for its pale greenish tint. The olives are pressed one layer at a time with granite stones at a low temperature. The flavor is smooth and fruity with an acidity level under 1%--qualifying it for extra-virgin status.
These recipes are from the kitchen of Sofi Kostantinides, owner of Sofi Estiatorion Restaurant and a teacher of Greek cooking at UCLA.
SOFI'S GREEK PASTA WITH BROWNED BUTTER AND CHEESE
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound hylopites (egg noodles) or Greek tube pasta
10 tablespoons butter
2 cloves crushed garlic, optional
1 1/2 cups grated Mizithra or Kefalotiri cheese
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
To a large pot of boiling water add salt and noodles and cook until al dente, or follow package directions. Drain and rinse with cool water.
In large saute pan, melt butter over medium-low heat and add garlic. Cook until butter is light-golden brown. Remove from heat. Add pasta and mix gently. Blend in cheese and parsley. Serve at once. Makes 4 to 5 servings.
SOFI'S MERINGUE WITH CHERRY SPOON SWEETS
2/3 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon fine sugar
4 meringue shells
1 cup sour cherry spoon sweets
Whip cream with sugar until soft peaks form. Spoon about 3 tablespoons sweetened whipped cream on each meringue shell. Top with cherries, reserving some for garnish. Top cherries with remaining cream, dividing evenly among meringues. Garnish with remaining cherries. Makes 4 servings.