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Today a residential neighborhood four kilometers north of downtown Athens, Galatsi was once comprised of endless fields where shepherds grazed their flocks. Until the mid-19th century, this area at the foot of the Tourkovounia hill range was uninhabited – the shepherds had free rein.

All that changed some 150 years ago when the hills began to be quarried for building materials, particularly lime; workers at the lime kilns eventually became the neighborhood’s first residents. But the local shepherds didn’t immediately pack up and leave. In fact, according to one local legend, they inadvertently gave the new neighborhood its name. To sell their milk to the recently arrived residents, the shepherds used to roam the streets shouting “Gala, gala, fresko gala” (Milk, milk, fresh milk). It was this constant cry that supposedly led people to call the neighborhood Galatsi.

Over the years the area became densely built up with apartment blocks and heavily populated, with plenty of shops, restaurants, cafeterias and takeaways popping up to cater to the neighborhood’s many residents. But as far as we can remember, the offerings were nothing to write home about – at least not until the summer of 2012, when childhood friends Giorgos Lattas and Alexandros Mazis decided to open Lambrinaki, an inviting little eatery in the neighborhood.

Alexandros and Giorgos both grew up in Galatsi and were acutely aware of the lack of good food in the area. Making use of Alexandros’ passion for business and Giorgos’ deep love for food and cooking, the twenty-somethings opened their own restaurant, a dream project for the duo. They found a space on the neighborhood’s main square, a prime location, and fixed it up with extra care. Inside, the luminous setting is very simple and a bit quirky – the tables have drawers that contain cutlery and napkins as well as, rather unexpectedly, pencils and notebooks.

Giorgos has been infatuated with food ever since he was a child, when his beloved yiayia (grandmother) Katerina taught him how to cook. He was lucky to grow up with “the best cook,” Giorgos told us, smiling with pride (he still has all the handwritten recipes that he and his grandmother scribbled over the years as they cooked together). So, of course, he was put in charge of crafting Lambrinaki’s menu, which initially focused on souvlaki and biftekia (grilled meat patties with chopped onion and fresh herbs).

Their success was immediate, and they gradually started adding more dishes to the menu. But even as the number of offerings increased, the focus remained on simple, Greek dishes, often with a special twist, and made with ingredients of a superior quality, many of which are organic and sourced from all over Greece.

Lambrinaki is perhaps best known for their different types of souvlaki, most of which take their inspiration, not to mention their names from the owners and their family members. There’s one with sausage named after Giorgos’ father, an avid lover of sausages, and one that substitutes mushrooms for meat named in honor Alexandros’ mother, who is a vegetarian.

Lambrinaki is perhaps best known for their different types of souvlaki, most of which take their names from the owners and their family members.

Alongside the high quality of meat they use, their unique pita breads are undoubtedly another key part of their success. They use three types: a classic pita bread, one made of whole wheat and one made of corn. All are delicious, but don’t go asking what’s in them – the breads are handmade by a woman who follows a secret recipe that Alexandros and Giorgos guard closely.

We tried the souvlaki named after Giorgos, Souvlaki tou Giorgi, which is the one that put Lambrinaki and its owners on the culinary map after To Vima, a Greek newspaper, wrote up the dish. Pieces of succulent grilled chicken, lettuce and sliced tomatoes are wrapped inside a hearty whole-wheat pita coated with mustard. Their grilled pork sausage, handmade by a butcher in Kalyvia, an area near the Athens airport, was delicious, and yiayia Katerina’s famous biftekia was particularly delightful ­– this beloved Greek dish was even more special here because the recipe contains an extra dose of love. An organic white wine from the island of Limnos – dry yet aromatic, both fruity and light – was the perfect accompaniment to our feast.

Since we absolutely love tomatoes, we also ordered the tomato fritters (chopped fresh tomatoes dusted with flour and then pan-fried). Crispy and full of flavor, the fritters are served with a refreshing yogurt dip on the side. Another tasty tomato-inspired dish is the sesame crusted fried feta served with a delicious tomato jam. Their hand-cut fries topped with graviera, a buttery cheese from the island of Naxos, are addictive but the organic, delicately fried zucchini strings served with a yogurt sauce were the winners in the small bites department.

Another must-try are the perfectly fried eggs (also organic) on blanched stamnagathi (wild greens), which are stacked on a thick slice of traditional style sourdough bread that has been baked in a wood-burning oven. For a salad, we chose the so-called “Cretan nest,” a bowl-shaped rusk filled with sliced cherry tomatoes, capers and caper leaves, and with plenty of grated feta sprinkled on top.

Apart from what’s on their regular menu, they offer three or four daily specials ranging from vegetarian dishes and soups to hearty magirefta, the name for slow-cooked and baked casseroles ­– comfort food at its finest.

While you can get delivery or take-out from Lambrinaki, we recommend eating in. If the weather is good – and it usually is – grab a table outside by the platia (square) of Saint Andreas and do like the locals do: enjoy your food at a slow pace, sip on a glass of wine or ice-cold beer, and have long, meandering conversations, all while watching careless kids play and locals pass by. Galatsi may not be as idyllic as it once was (and the shepherds that allegedly gave it its name are long gone), but sitting outside at Lambrinaki, eating a souvlaki in the sun, is about as pleasant an afternoon as we can imagine.

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Marco Arguello

Published on April 12, 2018

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