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The Westchester Restaurant Guide's list of Greek restaurants.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about Greek food is that eating out and sharing the dinner is as important as the food itself. Greeks even have a special word for this "paraia" a transcendence of the dinner table to include conversation, the view, ambiance and the overall spirit of place.
Greek Cuisine - Simple, Healthy, and Delicious
Greek food is an ingenious way of making a simple meal using the lots of fresh vegetables, lamb, fish, chicken, Feta cheese, olives, capers, and tomatoes. Herbs and spices generally include oregano, dill, fennel, bay leaves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Greek cuisine relies on the tastes of the freshest produce available. Although it is possible to make a Horiatiki Salata in America, it just can’t compare with the lusciously red tomatoes sprinkled with oregano that you get everywhere in Greece. There are also subcategories of Greek cuisine: cooking in large casseroles, stews, grilled meat and seafood specialties, and filo items (pites). Each type of cooking is represented by a specialty restaurant. Tavernas can be found all over Greece and specialize in pre-prepared casserole items (Moussaka, Pastitsio, vegetables stuffed with rice) which are plated out at a moment’s notice. Psistaries serve only grilled meats which are ordered by the kilo for large parties. Pites, filo pastry pies stuffed with greens are generally bought from bakeries and eaten on the run. They are rarely served in restaurants and are considered "laiko" or village cuisine, made at home or purchased from either a bakery or a street vendor specializing in one type of pita. The mark of a housewife’s culinary prowess is how fast she is able to “open” filo to make a pita for unexpected guests.
While the main ingredients of Greek cooking are basic and few – olive oil, honey, yogurt, fresh fruits and vegetables, lamb and fish – the manner in which they are prepared seems to have an endless variety and taste. There is also an additional delight, pretty much unique to Greece, of being invited into the kitchen to view the offerings and make your selection. A wonderful benefit that the Greek diet provides, whether you eat meat or are vegan: it is arguably the healthiest diet available as well as user-friendly to those who want to eat well while not having to worry about putting on weight.
History from Antiquity to Byzantium
Most of what we currently know about cuisine in ancient Greece comes from Athenaeus’ Dipnosophistae "The Banquet of the Learned". His work is a compilation of a series of discussions among the intellectuals at a banquet. In addition to his accounts of the conversations had about morality and religion, there is also information about what was actually served at the banquets. Greek cuisine in antiquity was not as exciting as it is today; consisting primarily of gruel, legumes, fresh and salted fish, olive oil, vegetables and very little meat. Most meat was eaten during sacrifices and religious holidays. Vegetarianism has a long tradition in Greece and was espoused by Pythagoras who abstained from meat for moral reasons. Even to this day, the ultra-religious abstain from meat and animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as during the forty days of Lent.
It was not until the rise of Byzantium, that cuisine began to emerge as an art form. The royal court had a staff of professional cooks who began to expand the traditional repertoire of food to include foodstuffs imported from all corners of the empire such as spices and caviar. After the fall of Byzantium, the courts of Ottoman Sultans inherited many of these culinary styles explanding them with their own traditions. Under the Ottomans, Greek cuisine was heavily influenced by Turkish cuisine. In the small areas of Greece that were under Venetian dominion such as the Ionian Islands and the Cyclades there is a strong Italian influence. Dishes of Italian origin include Bourdeto (a fish stew from Corfu) and Poutinga (blood pudding expressly forbidden by the Greek Church). Greeks also adore pasta and claim to be the largest per capita consumers in the European Union (EU).
When you walk into a estiatorio type restaurant - after finding a table (almost always outdoors between the months of May and October), you will be permitted or encouraged to go to the kitchen to see what they have to offer. There will be a large steam table full of pots with different dishes in them. Pick out what looks good and don't be afraid to ask your cook, waiter or host "What is this?"
In Tavernas and psistarias (grill houses) there is usually not a steam table with food on display though you may be able to look at their meats which are on dislay behind a glass counter. In a psaro-taverna (fish taverna) you can ask to see the fish too and make sure it is fresh. In fact it is sort of expected of you. If you don't know what a fresh fish looks like, first of all if you act like you know what you are doing they won't even show you the fish if it is not fresh.
This is also true when selecting meats such as paidakia (lamb-chops) and lamb roasted on the spit either of which come by weight or portion. Usually they come with fried potatoes but you can ask for rice or even macaronia in most places. Some of the fish may have been frozen and the squid generally comes from the Atlantic or Monterey California in the summer months. On the menus if a fish is frozen there will be the abbreviation 'kat.' after it meaning katepsigmenos (frozen). Fresh is freska. If you see fried squid on a tray don't order it. You don't want anything fried unless it is cooked to order which is generally the case. Bread comes automatically to the table and is included in the cover charge whether you eat it or not. You also get a carafe of water which is normally tap water which is fine, especially in Athens. But some restaurants may try to pull a fast one and bring you bottled spring water which you have to pay for. You can return it and ask for a nero ap ti vrissi , literaly 'water from the spring', though you are asking for water from the sink.
You can buy some really nice Greek wines by the bottle. Not just retsina and domestica but Merlot's and Cabernets etc by big companies like Hatzimichalis and smaller lesser known wineries. You can buy dopio or hima which is local wine by the liter or karafaki (carafe). You may also find that the wine is made by the owner of the restaurant (especially tavernas) and sold only there and it may be the best thing you ever tasted. If the restaurant is full of wine barrels chances are good that it is home-made.
Usually the first person who comes to your table will bring the silverware, bread and water and he may take your order for drinks. The waiter comes next and you should not be shy about showing him what it is you wanted if you can't find anything that sounds like it on the menu. Some people have an ouzo and an appetiser before beginning and you are under no obligation to order your main course right away. In fact if you like you can sit there all night ordering ouzo and appetisers in most restaurants. When dining in a Greek restaurant, most people just ask the waiter whats good. In most restaurants they will suggest the most popular dishes. Many restaurants are known for something they do particularly well.
In Greece you can keep ordering. Its not like you have to sit down and order your appetisers, your main course and that's it. If you liked something order another one. Try and get the waiter's name so you can hail him as he passes your table. If you are drinking wine, just show them the empty carafe they will be right back with more. Greek waiters are very informal. They don't care if you spend hours at your table. Unlike in the USA where they love turnover, in Greece you are expected to eat slowly and eat a long time and linger after a meal, eating fruit, smoking cigarettes and drinking more wine or a coffee. Never feel like you are under pressure to give up the table to someone else.