The sleepy residential neighborhood of Melissia, which lies northeast of downtown Athens and under Mount Pentelikon, is a rather unlikely place to visit. The suburb doesn’t have any notable sites, and apart from Kozi’s, a lovely South African meat restaurant, there’s not much in the way of distinguished eateries.
So in 2012, when Ornel ‘Oli’ Mingo opened Psarokokkalo in the suburb, everyone thought he was crazy. “People told me that there’s no way clients will come here to eat. But I saw potential. The rent was relatively cheap and there was some space for tables outside,” he explains. Fast-forward six years and Psarokokkalo (which means “fish bone” in Greek) has tripled in size, taking over the adjacent shop, and is now a beloved seafood taverna that attracts customers from all over Athens.
Oli is a poster child for Albanian immigrants in Greece. “My sister’s husband was working in Kastelorizo [an upmarket fish restaurant that has grown into a group of businesses], and when I was 16, in 1996, he brought me over from my hometown Korçë, in southeastern Albania, to Athens to wash dishes at the restaurant. I had never even eaten fish in my life, but gradually I managed to climb up and become the grill cook,” he tells us. “I stayed there for seven years, but it was not enough. I left and worked in various places, as a waiter and a truck driver, but I always knew that I wanted a restaurant of my own, a fish restaurant that everyone could enjoy, not only rich people.”
He joined forces with a woman who had also worked at Kastelorizo as a cook, and together they decided to open Psarokkokalo. But licensing took so long that the cook became pregnant and went into labor on the day of the opening. “I had to urgently bring in my wife, Apostolia, who also just had our second child, to cook, because I had no one else to do the job and she was a wonderful cook at home,” says Oli. “And she has been the cook at Psarokokkalo ever since!”
The food at Psarokokkalo successfully blends traditional and modern cuisine. The restaurant offers the classic dishes traditionally found in a Greek seafood taverna, such as fried anchovies and red mullet, grilled sardines and octopus, boiled greens and more, all well prepared using only the freshest ingredients. In winter, don’t miss out on the fish soup – it’s one of the best we’ve ever tried.
“People told me that there’s no way clients will come here to eat. But I saw potential.”
While the classics are superb, we recommend branching out to some of their more creative dishes, like the split pea puree with octopus and caramelized onions, the black-ink risotto, or, our personal favorite, the delicious monkfish tail saganaki (the fish is cooked in a tomato-based sauce with feta cheese). On our last visit we also tried an off-menu ceviche made with fresh wild sea bass; it was wonderfully executed and looked like something you’d find at a fancier spot. According to Oli, it will make it on the menu soon. Overall, the portions are very generous, but they also offer half-portions for smaller groups who want to try more dishes, or for kids.
Oli does all the shopping for the restaurant himself. Most small fish, like sardines and anchovies, come from a vendor in the fish wharf of Keratsini, close to Piraeus port, while large fish like grouper and sea bream are sourced from fishermen who catch a few large fish daily using spear guns.
Psarokokkalo is definitely an outlier. Despite having opened in the midst of the financial crisis, in an out-of-the-way suburb, the restaurant has managed not only to grow in size, but also to be constantly busy. They are open seven days a week, for lunch and dinner, and only close for a week in August (around the 15th), a day for Easter and a day for Christmas.
When we ask Oli the secret to his success, he smiles and says, “I treat the customer the way I like to be treated. I never serve anything I wouldn’t eat myself, I never complain and I try to make everyone feel at home.” Big portions and good prices also help, but that personal touch is what makes Psarokokkalo so special.
When they leave, most customers seek Oli out to say a personal goodbye, something he takes great pride in.