On Serifos island, local word-of-mouth advice on where to eat real Greek home-cooked food – at excellent prices – will take you to the end of a beach road, a dirt path bordering the turquoise sea.
Around a slight bend on a corner clearing, a dozen or so mismatched, aged wooden tables and chairs strewn in front of whitewashed house are simply lit by a string of light bulbs hanging between two thick tamarisk trees. Here, 83-year-old Kyria (Mrs.) Margarita has faithfully taken orders, cooked every dish and welcomed her summer guests for more than three decades. Hers is the prototypical traditional Greek island taverna.
Fluorescent lights brighten the open kitchen, throwing a soft white glow through the window-paneled wall onto the dining tables outside. The tidy space is decorated with a few shelves of knick-knacks and photos of her family.
Minutes after guests choose a table, Kyria Margarita (as she is respectfully called), dressed as usual in a plain housedress, her gray hair pulled in a tight ponytail, slowly makes her way out with a hobble in her step and a small arch to her back. Clutching a little notepad and a pen in her soft and thick wrinkled hands, she offers a near-toothless yet warm smile before running through a list of what’s keeping warm in the kitchen (as with all typical tavernas, there is no menu). After taking orders, she makes her way back to prepare the plates one by one, choosing from up to 12 pots, pans and casseroles on her counter and four-burner gas oven.
Throughout the night, the casseroles empty out and mismatched plates and cutlery piles up in between mounds of suds in the sink. All the while, guests are welcome to walk right in to see what she has decided to cook for the day. Regulars often poke around over her shoulder before deciding on their orders.
“I worked at one taverna at the harbor when I was a young woman,” she says, “but I learned to cook from my mother, and she learned from my grandmother.”
Keeping with taverna tradition, Margarita’s is the place for magirefta, slow-cooked dishes that Greeks dream about when craving home cooked food. Vegetable dishes include melitzanes, plump eggplants slow baked with oregano, garlic and onions, and gemista, fragrant rice-stuffed tomatoes and peppers. She also prepares lamb and chicken stews and keftedes, Greek meatballs. Also popular is her moussaka, with layers of meat and vegetables and topped with a creamy béchamel sauce. Her specialty is revithada, a chickpea stew native to the Cyclades.
“I like how my guests come in to watch me cook because they want to learn about Greek food.”
Kyria Margarita insists speaking Greek isn’t a communication barrier when it comes to giving a bit of cooking advice to international tourists. “Somehow they understand me. It’s all about good ingredients.”
For her, it starts with getting up early to tend to her goats and other animals as well as the vegetable gardens. By evening she is ready to welcome the first guests in her yard.
Kyria Margarita’s taverna is also a family affair. In the summer, her grandsons Georgios and Nikos help wait tables. Her son Kostas produces a rosé hima (local wine) from their vineyard. The family’s farm grows string beans, capers, tomatoes and zucchini. She also picks horta, an array of wild greens, which she boils to make a warm, tart vegetable dish with lemon and olive oil.
Kyria Margarita chuckles recalling how she began serving her home-cooked dishes in the first place. In 1965, she opened a few rooms for rent to tourists – when there wasn’t even electricity in the area. In time, her guests were looking for a good Greek meal, and that’s how her very own kitchen opened up into the simplest of Greek tavernas. Not much has changed since.
Born and raised on the island, Kyria Margarita is one of 800 locals, many of whom are connected to the tourism industry in some form. After decades running her rooms and her taverna, she says she is far from retirement and anticipates welcoming her renters who are “like family,” whether seasonal locals or new faces.
“Winters are quiet on the island. In the summer, Serifos comes back to life, and I love what I do for these busy weeks, being in touch with everyone again and cooking my food for them.”
Native New Yorker Marissa Tejada is an author, travel writer and freelance journalist based in Athens, Greece. She also shares her travel and food experiences throughout Greece and Europe on her blog, Travel Greece, Travel Europe.