There is something magical about the area where To Mavro Provato is located, near the rather mysterious Proskopon Square in Pagrati. The square itself, hidden behind Vasileos Konstantinou Avenue, is usually dark even in the daytime thanks to the tall shady trees that fill it.
At night, amidst an almost green glow from the trees, local establishments put chairs and tables out in Proskopon Square. Among these is the artsy yet decadent Magikos Avlos – famous as the hangout of the late Manos Hatzidakis, Greece’s foremost composer of the past 50 years – along with a number of coffee shops, bars and souvlaki places. A few streets up, on the far quieter Arrianou Street, is To Mavro Provato.
Though To Mavro Provato has only been open for a few months, it has already become so popular that you’ll need to make reservations. It is perhaps the restaurant’s humble aspirations that make it so endearing. The venue advertises itself as a mezedopoleio, a place that does mezes, those small plates of food served in most Mediterranean countries and usually washed down in Greece with ouzo or tsipouro (a strong white spirit produced from wine-press residue, akin to grappa). The stereotypical image of a mezedopoleio is that of a cheap hangout place that is not necessarily high in quality. Compared to what’s on offer in the cities of Northern Greece, especially Thessaloniki, Athens takes second place when it comes to mezedopoleia.
In reality, the only thing about To Mavro Provato that will remind you of a typical mezedopoleio is the prices. A small glasss of tsipouro costs just €0.60, an order of kayiana (scrambled eggs with tomato) is €3.50, and a plate of grilled halloumi with mint can be had for €4.20. It is this value for money, combined with a lovely environment and great attention to detail, that keeps Mavro Provato busy at all times of day.
Mavro Provato earns brownie points for atmosphere. The restaurant’s name means “The Black Sheep” and the logo is indeed that of a black sheep. In keeping with that theme, the walls are lined with blackboards, which are filled with somewhat trite Greek sayings ranging from the sweet (“The black sheep has a white heart”) to the nearly untranslatable (“Art needs a craftsman and fava needs olive oil”). The lighting beautifully complements the black walls, white marble tabletops and plain wooden furniture. Outside, diners sit under bitter orange trees, nibbling on bread placed on linen towels.
The menu is divided into three sections: salads, cold dishes and warm dishes. The fresh and crispy salad with katiki Domokou cheese – a soft, light goat cheese produced in the area of Domokos in central Greece – is a definite winner. The combination of barley rusks, spinach and finely chopped tomato in this salad makes for a crunchy texture, in direct antithesis to the creaminess of the tangy cheese. The wide range of warm dishes includes the unusual meatballs with ouzo and mint, as well as pancetta, which is marinated here in fresh herbs and pepper, the latter giving it a sweet edge. Also particularly strong are the meat dishes, including a spicy, heavy and wintry beef sausage that is a rare delicacy from the city of Drama in Northern Greece; it’s an excellent meze for ouzo. The hunkar begenti, a Turkish dish popular in Athens, is also a standout, the beef stewed in tomato sauce and served with a smooth eggplant purée. (While the original Turkish dish calls for lamb, Mavro Provato – like many other places in Greece – makes it with beef instead.)
One of the advantages of Mavro Provato’s being a mezedopoleio is that it offers the opportunity to try a variety of liqueurs and drinks rarely found in mainstream restaurants. In addition to tsipouro, there are five different ouzo brands on offer (we recommend the well-trusted Pitsiladi brand from Mytilene, aka Lesbos) as well as raki (unlike the Turkish version, this strong spirit has no aniseed flavor). But our personal favorite is the rakomelo, warm tsipouro or raki mixed with honey and spices.
The owner of Mavro Provato, Evdoxia Pantou – a lovely woman with bright orange hair and a penchant for wearing kaftans – has been active in the restaurant industry in Athens for years, running a catering and takeout place for workers that’s located right next door to Mavro Provato. It’s clear that Pantou has put a lot of hard work and care into making her new venture both affordable and welcoming; she herself seems to be ever-present, and can be frequently seen going from table to table asking customers if they liked their food. We would challenge anyone to reply in the negative.
This review was originally published on October 17, 2012.