Almost every Greek restaurant in America serves the holy quartet: souvlaki (grilled chicken or pork kabobs), spanakopita (a phyllo-dough pastry enclosing spinach and feta cheese), moussaka (a baked lamb and eggplant casserole) and gyros (seasoned beef and lamb thinly sliced and served in pita bread with tzatziki, a cucumber, garlic and yogurt sauce). But, if you go to Greece, you will rarely see these items on the menu because they are street food, unless you are in a touristy area, and the menus have been adapted for tourists.
It doesn’t take much time traveling before you realize that, for the most part, the Italian or Greek food you have eaten in the United States bears little resemblance to the food you will eat in Italy or Greece. Although some cuisines have arrived upon these shores relatively intact, the foodstuffs of the more populous immigrant groups inevitably have become somewhat Americanized. It is safe to say that few Greeks would acknowledge what passes for gyros here. Variations of gyros can be found throughout the Mediterranean, where this classic street food is a haunch of lamb, spitted and roasted and served in a flatbread, not some preformed melding of several different meats.
There was a time when the Greek Village Inn, tucked into a back corner of the University Village shopping center, epitomized the Greek-American restaurant, taking Greek street food, Americanizing it and serving it for dinner. The Greek Village Inn did it very well, too, and many of the area’s oldest Greek residents could be found hanging around the big table in the front of the restaurant.
But when Cathy Tsakopoulos-LaGesse and Leo LaGesse bought the dining establishment in March 1998, they took it to a more authentically Greek level. You still can order the classic favorites, but more adventurous diners can sample some dishes rarely seen stateside. Appetizers include horta (simmered wild greens) and oktapodi (cold octopus salad). Diners who are more timid or less familiar with Greek food would do well to try pikilia ($10.95), a sampler plate with gyros, spanakopita, tyropita (pastry with feta and cream cheese), dolmathes (beef and rice rolled in grape leaves), feta cheese and Kalamata olives. The platter comes garnished with a brand of pita bread far superior to that usually found in Greek restaurants. The owners import it from their native Chicago; in fact, they bring in most of their foodstuffs from Chicago, Boston and Greece. Both the spanakopita and the tyropita are made well, the phyllo crisp and the fillings well flavored. The dolmathes, too, are quite good, without that disturbing metallic flavor found in some brands of grape leaves. The gyros are, well, American gyros, but very good nonetheless, with a careful grilling that added a good deal of depth of flavor.
My husband opted for a classic gyro sandwich ($9.75), while I ordered a more typical Greek dinner of makarona with stuffed squid ($13.95). All dinners come with a choice of a Greek salad or another classic, avgolemono soup. The salad includes the usual garnish of feta cheese and Kalamata olives, but they take a twist with some onions grilled to the point of caramelization. The lemon rice soup is a given at a Greek restaurant, but the Greek Village Inn’s rendition is better than most, with a distinct chicken flavor moderating the tartness of the lemon. The squid was handled deftly, which is no small feat considering that calamari can go from tender to rubber in three seconds flat. The dish consisted of three whole squid, cleaned, stuffed with feta cheese and herbs, quickly grilled and then served on a bed of makarona (long, thin tubes of pasta that fuse the attributes of spaghetti and macaroni) in a lemon cream sauce. The creaminess of the feta was a perfect contrast to the firm, sweet flesh of the squid.
Most Greek restaurants serve baklava, and only baklava, for dessert. But at the Greek Village Inn you can round out your meal with rice pudding or cream caramel or with something you’d usually see only in a cookbook: kataifi. This dessert most closely resembles shredded wheat and is usually baked with butter and drizzled with a sweet syrup. Here, the shredded phyllo dough is topped with custard, ladyfingers and whipped cream (ek mek kataifi, $4.50).
Our waitress started off just this side of surly and then became friendlier as the meal progressed. She was efficient for the most part, but one dish we ordered, a side of moussaka, never appeared. When the kitchen did not have enough squid to fill my order, she comped the dessert, a gracious move that I appreciated. Leo LaGesse, the owner, was present throughout the evening, stopping by each table to check on his diners.
All in all, the Greek Village Inn has been brought into the 21st century with grace. It is still the classic neighborhood Greek-American restaurant, but its menu has been updated to reflect a more cosmopolitan palate. Fans of both the classic and the authentic can find common ground here.