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Update: This spot is sadly no longer open.

The corner shop had stood empty for at least two years, so naturally I was interested when signs of renewed occupancy began appearing just a few blocks from where I live. Plaster came off the façade, revealing beautiful amber-colored stone walls with a cream trim that matched the perforated half-moons above the windows. Then the paper was stripped from the glass, and lo and behold the neighborhood had a new bakery, with tempting displays decorating the sills. Two slender olive trees in wooden churn-like pots planted with red cyclamen guarded the door, but I slipped past them to wish the owners kalo riziko – good roots – and to see what was going on.

A tall, slender man with longish, straight hair greeted me, to my surprise, in perfect American English. Introducing himself as “Pete, from Michigan,” he offered me a sesame-speckled breadstick as a get-acquainted lure. It worked.

In the year or so since that initial encounter, Ta Alonia has become far more than a place to get bread. I pop in regularly to pick up little triangles of spinach pie, more of those breadsticks that come in about a dozen flavors, a slice of pizza, lahmacun or a burrito, or the dish of the day, when I can’t think of what to cook. It’s never empty; cars are constantly pulling into the convenient parking space outside and pedestrians stream in and out from 6 in the morning to 10 at night.

I also pop in to talk to Pete. Early on I learned that he also owns the Mexican restaurant Dos Hermanos, around the corner on Kyriazi, as well as another bakery in the western Athenian suburb of Peristeri. I can’t imagine how he manages to juggle these three establishments, but I’m even more surprised to hear that in another life he was an aircraft engineer.

Pete, né Panagiotis Marangos, was born in Athens but moved to Southgate, Michigan, as a small child. He studied aircraft engineering at college and worked for Butler Aviation in the States and then Hellenic Aerospace, when he and his family returned to Greece in 1990.

So where did the interest in food come from?

It seems Pete has always led a double life. Like so many kids, he worked after school, starting at about 15 as a busboy in the restaurant Mexican Gardens, where he learned the basics and eventually became a cook. Mexican Gardens in Southgate is still “the best in the Detroit area,” according to online reviews.

He dropped his job at Hellenic Aerospace soon after he got his own Mexican restaurant up and running at the end of ’91. It remains one of the few such restaurants in the northern suburbs. Then, two years ago, a bakery in his wife’s family became available in Peristeri, so he fixed that up. But when the previous bakery closed on Agiou Tryfonos, he knew he had to get hold of it.

“It was the oldest bakery in Kifisia, a landmark since well before World War II, and I wanted to keep that original atmosphere and look. I also named it after the neighborhood, Ta Alonia” – in memory of the threshing floor that stood here in a past so distant that not even nonagenarians can recall it. “I was lucky: the original owners left their oven. It’s a cast-iron Matador, made in Germany. It cost a lot to fix up but it was worth it.”

“Apart from the kneading machine, we make everything by hand, and almost everything on display here is made on the premises, from scratch. We’re one of the few bakeries in Athens that is still a fourno, that actually bake their own bread. We’re a dying breed, unfortunately. Most bread shops belong to a chain or get their loaves from some central plant.”

“We have two bakers, each with over 20 years of experience, who start their shift at 11:30 p.m. and work through the night, and we’re open every day of the week, even holidays.”

Apart from six types of bread in at least 12 different shapes – sourdough, horiatiko, whole grain, white, multiseed – the shop stocks an incredible range of goods – well over a hundred products – and Pete challenges me to find a bakery or a sweets shop that has more. Among the most popular are the breadsticks and rings (at least ten types), sweet and plain rusks, pastries from the honey-soaked baklava family and dozens of kinds of cakes, cookies (with and without sugar), tsoureki (brioche or challah), croissants (the best this side of Paris), sandwiches and wraps. Most are familiar but some are new to me – like the tsoureki flavored with apple or cherry, the chocolate-coated diples (feather-light fried dough), or the pastelli (brittle) made with sunflower seeds.

Having a pronounced “salt” tooth, I am drawn particularly to the case with the savory pies and breads that change every day. Here you’ll find all sorts of pizzas, an intriguing rolled bread stuffed with cheese, olives, peppers and sausage, spring rolls, typical Greek pies and also a classic main dish, such as pastitsio (baked macaroni casserole), moussaka, baked giant beans or stuffed eggplant…which you can buy by the portion for much less than it would take to prepare at home. Pete cooks these dishes himself and is constantly experimenting and researching new recipes.

The products from outside also meet Pete’s high standards. Even I am tempted by the rows of handmade chocolates and the blocks of the best halvah. But looking more closely, I discover high-end potato chips, imported peanut butter, Himalayan salt, tahini, honey and bags of homemade pasta from a small firm in Crete. And for one-stop shopping, there’s a fridge with dairy products, soft drinks and the like, not to mention fresh coffee and orange juice machines.

Ta Alonia has just celebrated its first birthday, and I’m willing to bet it will weather the crisis and become a fixture. As for Pete, he’ll keep the quality superior if only because he has his wife to answer to. When asked if she helps, he answered, “Oh, yes, I run everything by Mariza; she’s my toughest critic.”

Finally, Ta Alonia throws no food away. At the end of the day, anything that cannot be sold the next morning is given to the area’s needy. It’s an old-fashioned touch – the same that extends to everything else at this welcome addition to the neighborhood.

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Published on February 03, 2014

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