Every time I travel to Paris, I always try to find restaurants that serve good French food. Likewise, whenever I have found myself in Italy, I’ve always sought out restaurants that served local dishes. When I visited Portugal recently, I was keen to try local Portuguese cuisine, and if I were to go to Japan in the future, I would certainly prefer local dishes. After all, I would never try to find a Greek taverna in any of these countries. The thought alone seems surreal to me.
What am I getting at? I think it’s obvious. Why would I want to try sushi in Mykonos, tapas in Rhodes, or seaweed dishes in Paros? If their local dishes are rich and part of their island culture and identity, why wouldn’t they want to share them with the rest of the world? Why don’t they proudly serve them to their visitors? What do they think a Japanese tourist would prefer: an average sushi or a delicious “pitaroudi” (chickpea fitter)?
Below are some of the best tavernas on the Aegean islands that fly the flag of Greek gastronomy with pride.
Rhodes – “Pitaroudia” at Paraga
Paraga taverna, located in the quiet, peaceful village of Apollona on the island of Rhodes, is the point of reference of Rhodian cuisine. Their dishes are prepared with dedication and devotion based on old, traditional Rhodian recipes that they have gathered and arranged with great care. For example, they use local chickpeas to make traditional “pitaroudia” (chickpea fitters) based on a recipe they have borrowed from the book of the Lyceum Club of Greek Women of Rhodes of ’82, a dish that truly encapsulates the authentic taste of Rhodes.
Their menu includes varied local dishes, as well as more complex dishes, such as lamb shoulder prepared in a wood-stove oven and served in clay shell that resembles a small earthenware jar, and unleavened wheat bread whose preparation is a sacred ritual.
Paraga, 13 Apollona Country Road, Rhodes, Tel. (+30) 22460.912.47
Irakleio, Crete – “Gardoubakia” at Nyvritos Coffee Shop
At the pre-war coffee shop in Nyvritos, the village with the evergreen sage shrubs in the south of Irakleio, Crete, I had the pleasure of indulging in the culinary specialties of Mrs Koula, a low-profile cook whose dishes are ambrosia. Her “gardoubakia” (a meze made from lamb intestines) are tender with a buttery texture – a meze best enjoyed with raki.
She also served us “askordoulakous” (the rare bulbs of the wild hyacinth plant that have a bitter and sweet and sour taste), “koukofava” (a puree made with dried fava beans), “chochlioi” (snail stew), omelette with pigweed, pilaf, homemade stuffed grape leaves and delicious sujuks (spicy sausage). All the dishes are made with local olive oil.
Nyvritos, Irakleio, Crete, Tel. (+30) 28940.312.96
Paros – Stuffed onion leaves at Palia Agora Coffee shop
In a 1960s coffeeshop, in the heart of the tourist town of Naousa, Palia Agora insists on serving traditional dishes. Here, dishes are prepared with local, fresh ingredients, and with fruits and vegetables that they grow in their own garden, as well as capers that they gather themselves and cuttlefish and calamari-octopus that they buy from the local fishermen.
The dakos is a meal on its own, with barley rusks from the town of Agkairia, grated fresh tomato, olive oil, olives, oregano and the most delicious cheese that the island produces, the creamy “xinomyzythra.” The spicy calamari that is fried whole and the sublime meatballs are a must. Their specialty, however, is the honeyed stuffed onion leaves, a traditional oily œuvre d’art that epitomizes the taste of Paros.
Evaggelismos, Naousa, Paros, Tel. (+30) 22840.518.47
Lesvos – Steamed stingray at O Ermis
The legendary Smyrnaean sujuks (spicy sausages) of O Ermis (“Hermes”), made with a family recipe that has been passed down from the owners’ great-grandmother who was originally from Çeşme, Turkey, will tantalize your nose buds with the strong aromas of cumin, allspice and muscat wine. The sujuks, together with the steamed stingray that is rarely found elsewhere, are the best items on the menu at this very old institution that was founded by a Turk in 1800, before it was passed on to the Anatolian George Spanoudakis.
Try the island’s famous salted fish, the delicious “sougania” (stuffed onion leaves) with cumin and cinnamon, the honeyed imam bayildi, the “giouzlemedes” (small cheese pies) and the cuttlefish prepared in a vinegar sauce, the fried “ktavakia” (blue whiting fish), and the spleen prepared in a wine sauce.
2 Kornarou and Ermou, Mytilene, Lesvos, Tel. (+30) 22510.262.32
Limnos – “Kaspakino” with lamb at Kalouditsa
At Kalouditsa in the village of Plati, every dish passes through the wood-stove oven at the heart of the taverna. In this small, colorful taverna with potted plants and the checkered tablecloths, everything is prepared by Maria Kalligeri and, occasionally, by her mother, Mrs Kalouditsa. Two generations of cooks prepare moussaka, stuffed peppers and tomatoes, pastitsio, rabbit stew and veal with eggplant purée, as well as more particular delicacies, such as fish or meat prepared in a casserole dish with chickpeas and thick sauces so you can dip their freshly-baked bread.
The most characteristic dishes of Kalouditsa, and of the island itself, are the fried “katimeria,” which are delicious flat lokmas (fried dough) served with local kalathaki cheese and thyme honey, and the kaspakino, which is a honeyed dish with young lamb, rice and fresh local cheese cooked slowly in the wood-stove oven.
Plati, Limnos, Tel. (+30) 22540.236.11
Naxos – “Rosto” at Amorgino
One of the island’s best-loved tavernas, high in the mountainous village of Aperathou, follows an integrated production model: a model that characterizes many tavernas on the fertile island of Naxos. These tavernas cultivate the land, rear the animals and prepare, cook and serve the dishes.
Τhe pots of Amorgino, in particular, are filled with a delicious “rosto,” a traditional dish that can be found in many of the island’s mountainous villages – a honeyed stew that is traditionally made with pork, but can also be made with sheep meat. Try the fluffy omelettes made with local eggs, the golden French fries made with Naxos potatoes, the “ardoumia” (“gardoubakia” – a meze made from lamb intestines), the spleen, the “koilidakiafkiasta” (a soup with diced tripe served with a spicy red sauce and plenty of onions), the delicious grilled sheep and the veal from well-fattened calves.
Apeiranthos, Naxos, Tel. (+30) 22850.617.33
Irakleia – Stuffed lamb at Araklia
Araklia is the case-study of local chef Giannis Gavalas who, after honing his skills in various restaurants throughout Greece, returned to Irakleia to open his own restaurant where his family’s house once stood, determined to make his native island a gastronomic destination. He prepares Cycladic dishes with ingredients he finds in Irakleia and in the nearby islands. He seasons his dishes with capers from the island of Tinos and puréed fennel from Syros, he uses cherry tomatoes from Paros, cheeses from Naxos, and soft tyrovolia cheese and kopanisti cheese from Mykonos.
In the winter, Giannis travels to various islands in search of rare local products that he includes on a list that accompanies his menu, thus giving his customers the opportunity to try select products made by local producers. Try the cheese lokmas and fried cheese roll made with Cycladic cheeses, which are his signature dishes, and the stuffed lamb with rice, liver and fennel – the emblematic local dish that, according to local customs, is prepared on Easter Sunday, but which you can find all year round at Araklia.
Aghios Georgios, Irakleia, Tel. (+30) 22850.715.70, 694.486.2603
Syros – Caper salad at Lilis
This old taverna in the town of Ano Syros, known to the locals as “Lilis,” was opened by Leonardos Roussos, a former slaughterman, in 1950. His tender meatballs have been enjoyed by many people and continue to be made tirelessly, together with other local dishes that are skillfully prepared by his grandson, chef Leonardos Roussos the younger. Try the sun-dried tomatoes fried in batter, the delicious veal with oregano, or the lamb with local San Michali cheese and thyme served on parchment paper.
The menu’s other local delicacies include a caper salad served in a mortar and a delicious fennel pie with a rich, honeyed filling. For dessert, try the wild fig sweet preserve, made from wild figs that Leonardos gathers from fig trees in Apano Meria, the northwestern region of Syros.
Ano Syros, Tel. (+30) 22810.880.87
This article was previously published in Greek at gastronomos.gr.