Like many cooks and chefs before and after her, Ioanna Amoutzaki’s biggest culinary inspiration was her mother, Lambrini. Born and raised in Xanthi, a beautiful town in northern Greece, Ioanna spent her childhood in a busy kitchen, learning the art of cooking.
Both of her parents came from Smyrna (now Izmir) in Asia Minor – the Greeks from that region have always been legendary for their cooking skills, and her mother was no exception. A particularly skilled home cook and baker (the family had a wood-burning oven in the backyard), Lambrini passed all of her culinary secrets to her daughter.
In 1995, love brought Ioanna to Athens. With her then-partner, she opened a small grill house – it was her first foray into a professional kitchen. After a few years, the couple split on good terms, at which point Ioanna opened a bakery specializing on peinirli, a boat-shaped flatbread traditionally made by Greeks from Asia Minor and the Black Sea area.
But three years ago, her beloved mother passed away, at which point Ioanna felt moved to create something on her own, something that she would be entirely responsible for and that would also honor her mother as well. After a lot of thinking and planning, Cocona was born, a pie shop dedicated to Mrs. Lambrini and her family pie recipes.
Cocona (κοκκώνα or κοκόνα in Greek), which derives from the Romanian cocoană, is an old word used to affectionately describe an aristocratic woman. It is a term of endearment closely associated with Greeks who came from Constantinople and Asia Minor; the word is still used today, often with a slight sense of humor when you want to employ an old-fashioned word to pamper or give an extra touch of affection to a woman close to you.
Fittingly, she opened Cocona in Kolonaki, an affluent neighborhood in central Athens best suited to an aristocratic woman. Moreover, in tribute to her mother, Cocona’s logo features a portrait of Lambrini.
Cocona officially launched in December 2017. It is literally a hole in the wall – a tiny little open workshop located on a beautiful pedestrian street in the heart of Kolonaki. Ioanna can always be found inside, rolling out pastry dough with a smile on her face while wearing her characteristic black-and-white headscarf and luscious red lipstick.
The small menu is overflowing with memories of her family. “She’s watching me, checking out whether I’m doing it right,” Ioanna jokes, nodding to a huge portrait of her mother right behind her. But in reality she has felt particularly close to her ever since she opened the shop. “It’s all about my memories of cooking these pies with her,” she says, “and the old family recipes that I follow.”
“It’s all about my memories of cooking these pies with her,” she says, “and the old family recipes that I follow.”
Besides the old family recipes, her secret is, of course, good ingredients, fresh vegetables and lots of freshly chopped herbs. She’s in charge of everything involving this little shop, from all the shopping to the execution of the recipes and more.
Most of her customers are regulars whom she knows by name. The moment they approach the shop, she can guess their order. “Hello Mr. Stavros! Ready for your spinach pie?” she asks as a man enters the shop. People seem to love her and how can you not? She’s always in a good mood and ready to feed you!
From her delicious enclosed pies we particularly love the one with minced beef, tomato and kaseri cheese; the hortopita made with fresh spinach, chopped leeks and freshly chopped Mediterranean hartwort and chervil; and the cheese pie made with a mix of three different traditional cheeses (feta, anthotyro and kaseri), eggs and fresh oregano. They are so good that her customers order whole baking trays from her to enjoy at home.
But the highlight of Cocona is undoubtedly Ioanna’s gozleme, a special kind of pie that comes from Asia Minor and was brought over to Greece by Greek refugees starting in the early 1920s. (Gözleme, as it’s called in Turkish, still remains a staple in Turkey to this day.) It’s a very thin, almost crepe-like pastry made of flour, water and yeast. The pastry is rolled thin, the filling is added right in the center and then the pastry is folded over almost like an envelope and grilled on a sachi (σάτσι), a special kind of hot convex metal surface that’s essential to making proper gozleme. In fact, Ioanna grew up with a sachi in her home where she watched her mom making gozleme daily.
Her gozleme are prepared to order – they’re never the same when reheated. A street food at heart, gozleme can even be healthy depending on the filling. We love the one with spinach, tomato and chopped herbs, and the one with beef pastourma (spicy cured beef), kaseri cheese and tomato. And if you’re particularly hungry, you can add a fried egg on top of any of the savory gozleme options.
Ioanna, clearly generous and passionate about what she does, wouldn’t let us go without trying her sweet version of gozleme. Thankfully we are trained to make extra space in our stomach when necessary, so she quickly made one for us stuffed with a milk custard, pure vanilla from Madagascar and a hint of lime, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Light and not too sweet, just how we like it – the perfect end to what turned out to be quite a feast.