It has been said that when Greeks want a good meal, they stay at home, and that when they go out, having fun is the object, the food a secondary concern.
But that was in the past. As diners have become more sophisticated and demanding, restaurants’ and tavernas’ standards have been rising and a mediocre meal is hard to find. But the craving for home cooking, for those laborious, slow-simmered soups, stews and casseroles that mothers and grandmothers used to devote their days to creating still persists. And the old-fashioned mageirio or mageriko is an institution that satisfies this urge.
These eateries are normally nondescript, bland and lacking atmosphere, not a place you’d like to linger in. Typically their offerings are displayed in their pots and baking pans behind a glass vitrine – no need to wade through a menu – and this is where you do linger, trying to make up your mind which appetizing dish to choose. They almost always include moussaka, pastitsio, a stuffed veg or two, a soup of beans, chickpeas or lentils, stuffed cabbage or vine leaves, a vegetable-rice pilaf, and several meat, fish, and chicken combinations, as well as a range of vegetable stews that are simplicity itself and yet indescribably comforting and delicious.
These fall into an unglamorous category known as laderá, sometimes translated as oily dishes, which evolved from the Orthodox fasting tradition during their four Lents and special days throughout the year (think meatless Wednesdays and Fridays). And they are sautéed (usually with some onion) in plenty of olive oil, of course, and then simmered with a bit of water and tomatoes, but “oily” doesn’t begin to capture the subtleties of flavor and richness that the best of them possess.
The most common vegetables that lend themselves to this treatment are string beans, peas, broad beans, okra, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower and artichokes (with lemon). And they are cooked until meltingly soft – quite anathema to the Western preference for crunchy, al dente foods – and all liquid has been absorbed; only a tasty sauce remains that requires scooping up with bread if not licking the plate.
Laderá are such a basic part of the Greek diet yet they don’t often feature at an upscale taverna, probably because they are so humble. To truly enjoy them you must find an old-style mageirio.
Sadly, this is not as easy as it was even ten years ago. In days of yore, almost every neighborhood possessed at least one, but they’ve been closing lately, forced out of business by quick bite joints known as “fastfoodadika,” big bakery chains that offer cooked food at very low prices, the high VAT of 24 percent on food, cheap eateries that rely on frozen products and the decline of the neighborhoods themselves. Many of them survive through deliveries to a much wider area.
Those mageiria that have managed to hold on continue to produce a daily menu with a staggering amount of variety. The choice at the Epirus Oinomageirion in the Varvakeio Central Market will keep you hovering until you order more than you can eat (for the portions are substantial). To get there you’ll have to negotiate the maze of alleys and counters in the Meat Market. The squeamish will want to avert their eyes from the pigs’ heads and trotters, dangling entrails and lamb carcasses, and tubs of chicken livers, but once safe inside the taverna, vegetarians and even vegans will be stumped for choice.
Epirus caters first and foremost to the men and women who work long hours in the Market, a captive clientele in a way, which helps explain the freshness, the wide range of dishes, and the no-frills (but very clean) and very lively interior. The people are colorful, but so are the pots, cauldrons and roasting pans arranged in three rows behind a long glass showcase. Among them will be at least five soups, baked beans, meat and veg casseroles and pilafs, fish, and of course laderá – all gleaming so temptingly you might as soon paint them as devour them.
Epirus feels like an institution but it didn’t open until 2001. In 2012 the current owner, Rania Karatzeni, took over from her father, forsaking her studies abroad in economics and management to run the restaurant. It is said that she speaks ten languages and she probably has to use them all at her post behind the till, since Epirus is so popular with visitors as well as locals.
With a meal of yummy pea and potato laderá and yiouvarlakia, a lemony meat/rice-ball soup, under our belt (let out a notch), we set off to investigate some other mageiria around Athens.
“Oily” doesn’t begin to capture the subtleties of flavor and richness that the best laderá possess.
Our quest took us to Kypseli, where friends who live there had recommended not one but two establishments, I Geitoniá (The Neighborhood) and Mezedomahíes (Appetizer Duels). Though tiny, the former has an enormous menu but we could see that our “guide” had another place in mind. He led us to the second, which had a more inviting ambience – red-checked tablecloths, seating on park-like Fokionos Negri (Kypseli’s main drag), charming murals, cutlery and napkins in red Kyknos tomato paste cans – and an illustrated fold-out, four-page menu.
Sharing ownership with the fish shop, Vlasis, across the street, Mezedomahies offers fish and seafood cooked to order as well as grilled meats, salads, pasta and standard mageirio fare on a plat du jour basis. That day’s specials did not include laderá, but the pastitsio was deliciously gooey, the chicken pie savory with a homemade crust and the beef soup homey. Panayotis Verginis, the waiter, made us feel very welcome, so we will definitely return, calling ahead to confirm that laderá are on offer.
There’s no danger of laderá not being served at Antonopoulos Greek Traditional Cuisine Restaurant not far from the National Archaeological Museum. The impressive name belies a small place with a 47-year history and an impressive list of dishes. Costas Antonopoulos, who learned to cook on the job, started working there from the age of 12 in 1971 when his family opened it. All seven siblings helped out, and he took over the kitchen in ’86. Practice makes perfect, and his wife Dora presented me with a luscious plate of green beans laderá, sweetened with the unusual addition of sliced carrots.
On the printed menu, we counted seven salads, five pastas, ten chicken or rabbit dishes, ten with beef or veal, five with lamb, seven with pork, 12 with chopped meat, 12 laderá plus similar numbers of soups, fresh and frozen fish (baked and fried), and pulses.
Why so many in an eatery with no more than 12 tables? It could be a habit from more prosperous days when the neighborhood was bustling with small businesses. Or it could be as Costas says, “We try to please everyone. For diversity is an element of our DNA and that’s not going to change.”
“I usually make 25 different dishes every day,” he told us. “Not everything on that menu. What they are depends on our mood and what’s on hand. But we always include two or three laderá. We use only fresh ingredients, bought from Rendi [the big wholesale market], except for some frozen fish. And we cook with our own olive oil from Kiparissia [in the southwest Peloponnese]. Sadly, we can’t put our oil on the table any more. The new legislation prescribes only commercial bottled oil.”
Closing time, 5 p.m., was approaching and Costas, exhausted, excused himself, leaving us to speak to his nephew, who had just arrived. Nikos Vogiatzis showed us the (Greek-only) website he’s been designing – especially helpful for their numerous delivery customers – and told us about his plans to work with Praksis, the medical aid NGO, offering incentives for customers to send back unused medicines with the lad who brings their order. He also won our hearts when he said, “Any food left over, we give to people in need. Since 2015, we have donated 1,800 meals to the homeless.”
Other restaurants where you can find dishes Greek mothers used to make include Taverna tou Oikonomou and Philippou, Ippokambos in Maroussi, and Ta 5 Φ (Fi) in Kaisariani. Most mageiria are lunch places, which open early in the morning, are closed by 5 or 7 p.m., and rest on Sundays.