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Since its name derives from the Turkish word peynir (cheese), it’s no surprise that Athens’ best peinirli (πεϊνιρλί, “with cheese”), a boat-shaped flatbread similar to pide in Turkey and khachapuri in Georgia, is usually found at old, specialized shops or eateries owned by families who originally came from Asia Minor or Pontus, the Greek name for the southern coast of the Black Sea, in the early 20th century.

So when Spyros, the owner of Peinirli Ionias in Ambelokipoi, one of the most popular peinirli takeaways in downtown Athens, casually mentions that he originally hails from the Ionian island of Corfu – nowhere near Asia Minor, another name for Turkey’s Anatolia region – we are left scratching our heads. Sensing our confusion, he quickly adds that he learned the art of peinirli-making directly from the source, so to speak: his late father- and mother-in-law, who both emigrated to Athens as part of the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

Peinirli may be one of many cultural and culinary traditions that accompanied these Greeks from Asia Minor and the Black Sea, but we would argue that it’s certainly one of the tastiest. The elastic dough is shaped like a boat and various toppings are placed inside before being baked in a wood-burning oven. Although peinirli can contain just about anything, traditional recipes call for kasseri cheese, spicy cured meats like pastourma and soutzouki, a sunny-side-up egg and, most importantly, high-quality full-fat butter, which is melted and then brushed on the warm dough as soon as it comes out of the oven.

All this buttery goodness is one of the reasons peinirli is adored by pretty much everyone (people joke that it’s one of the few Greek dishes that doesn’t get shared). When we duck into Spyros’ shop on busy Panormou Street, the first thing we notice – besides the aroma of freshly baked dough – is a queue of people of all ages and from all walks of life. To feed this hungry crowd, Spyros and a few other workers constantly have their hands in dough and Alexandros, Spyros’ son, mans the wood-burning oven, putting in and taking out peinirlis as quickly as he can.

The peinirli shop of his father-in-law, Giorgos Mavromatis, was equally popular, if not more so. Opened in the 1950s in Nea Ionia, a neighborhood primarily inhabited by Greeks from Asia Minor, the shop didn’t even have a name. But Mr. and Mrs. Mavromatis had a secret family dough recipe, a wood-burning oven and a passion for good food, and soon the crowds flocked to their unassuming spot.

Spyros recalls neighborhood women queuing with a container in their hands: they had prepared their own fillings at home and could be quite competitive, each claiming that hers was the best. A standard homemade filling consisted of feta, anthotiro (a mild white cheese similar to ricotta), chopped dill and a beaten egg, which was then topped with grated kefalotyri, a hard salty cheese made with sheep and goat’s milk. This happened on a daily basis up until the 1980s, according to Spyros.

Spyros’ philosophy is simple: love what you do, don’t use machines, never freeze anything and always close by 5:30 p.m.

Inheriting Giorgos’ passion for baking and wishing to continue his in-laws’ legacy, Spyros decided to quit his career as a graphic designer and open his own peinirli shop in 2001. This time it had a name: Peinirli Ionias, which translates as “Peinirli from Ionia,” Ionia being the Greek name for central coastal Anatolia.

The most important thing Giorgos passed down was his reverence for the dough, which will make or break a peinirli. A loving person outside of the kitchen, his father-in-law was a strict perfectionist when it came to making his signature dish. “He never moved away from his dough, always keeping an eye on it, truly caring for it,” says Spyros. And when he trained Spyros and other members of the family in the art of peinirli-making, he was always watching their movements and correcting them, admonishing them to do it perfectly because “making it well” was not good enough.

So it’s no surprise that Spyros also places a huge emphasis on the dough. “It talks to you!” he exclaims. Like many old-school bakers and housewives in Greece, he believes that the dough is much better when kneaded by hand rather than a soulless machine. (Some people don’t even allow anyone else to touch their dough before it’s baked, adhering to the superstition that another’s touch will negatively affect the final result.)

Overall, his philosophy is simple and uncompromising: love what you do, don’t use machines, never freeze anything and always close by 5:30 p.m. The latter is especially important, according to Spyros, because it allows everyone to return to the shop full of energy the next morning, ready to start fresh. “Happy employees do better work,” he points out with a kind smile on his face. “You can tell they are all happy, they’ve been working by my side for years, everyone in here is like family to me.”

Apart from peinirlis, the shop also offers cheese and spinach pies, open-faced sandwiches and five to six different types of bread. You will find the day’s offerings written on a backboard menu hanging on the wall. Most people take their order to go, as there are no tables or seats in the small but pleasant space. And even though the shop is in an area with lots of offices, it doesn’t offer delivery service. According to Spyros, food delivery is impersonal and unbefitting homemade food – you need to see where your food is being prepared and by whom.

Plus, if his customers didn’t come into the shop, he wouldn’t be able to get to know them. “We have a personal relationship with our regulars and that makes a huge difference,” says Spyros. “They don’t stop by only for the tasty food but also to say a kalimera, and that’s the highlight of my job.” We have to agree: while the best peinirli in town is certainly a big draw, a warm “kalimera” from Spyros is enough to keep us coming back.

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Manteau Stam

Published on March 19, 2018

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