Fanis Theodoropoulos grew up regularly visiting his father’s deli on Evripidou, the so-called “spice street” in the vibrant Central Market area. His father Dimitris, or “Barba-Mitsos,” as they called him, ran the tiny shop until 2002, when Fanis took over.
Although they now offer a wide selection of meats and cheeses, sourced from artisanal producers all over the country, the hole-in-the-wall shop mainly sold air-dried cured meats like pastourma and soutzouki, as well as salami from Lefkada island until the 1980s. With these cured meats as a foundation, Fanis has built a small empire of delis – most recently an expansive “workshop” in the Monastiraki neighborhood – that draw from long-held culinary traditions.
One of those traditions is that of making pastourma, which has a long history in this part of the world. Dry-curing meat dates back to antiquity, when it was necessary for food preservation. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, paston (παστόν, an ancient Greek term still used today to describe meat or fish rubbed with salt for curing purposes) was a popular dry-cured meat delicacy during the Byzantine period. It was the forerunner of what the Ottomans later named pastırma (from the Turkish verb bastırmak, which means to press), which became a specialty of Kayseri, a large city in central Turkey, not far from Cappadocia. Today variations of this highly seasoned, air-dried cured meat can be found around central and western Asia and in the Balkans.
Pastourma, as it’s called in Greece, became widespread in Athens after the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, under which Greek Orthodox Christians who had lived for centuries in Asia Minor and the Pontos (a region along the Black Sea) were forced to leave their lives and possessions behind and move to Greece (Muslims settled in Thrace were similarly forced to relocate to Turkey). While the arrival of these Asia Minor Greeks was not easy at first, especially in Athens, they brought another air to the city, with their songs and music, their skills and their beautiful cuisine.
Although Dimitris came from Lakonia, in the Peloponnese, his family settled in the southern suburb of Elliniko, in a neighborhood of refugees called “Bosporus” back then, when his father’s job brought them to Athens in the 1920s. His father became the caretaker of the Greek-American School that had moved from Smyrna (modern-day Izmir) to Athens after the exchange. Dimitris and his family learned a lot from their new community about their lives and history, and developed a deep fondness for the traditions that they imported. It was from these refugees that he learned all about the art of pastourma and soutzouki, which eventually became not just his passion but also his job.
Pastourma in Greece can be made of various types of meat: beef, lamb, pork, goat, buffalo or even camel. But many believe that the best pastourma recipe comes from the Karamanlides, Greek Orthodox Christians native to the Karaman and Cappadocia regions of Anatolia. Although they kept their Greek names, religion and traditions, the Karamanlides spoke a form of Turkish and were perhaps best known for writing this language with the Greek alphabet. When they moved to Greece after the population exchange, they quickly assimilated. Fanis didn’t know much about them back then – nor did many other Greeks – but he recalls clients entering his dad’s shop requesting pastourma “the Karamanlidikos way.”
Then in 2005, after he had taken over his father’s deli, Fanis met Paraskevas Saribogias, the owner of a legendary family-run meat-curing business called Sari, which has been based in the northern Greek region of Drama since the late 1800s. Paraskevas traces his heritage back to the Karamanlides and taught Fanis all about the group and their history. Deeply inspired, Fanis made Sari the shop’s main supplier, and in 2014, he opened a second shop a few steps away from the original deli that he named Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani (Fanis’ Karamanlidika). Imagined as a traditional Byzantine pastomageirion (a place specializing in dishes made with παστόν, salt-cured items), the beautiful expanded deli serves food inspired by and based on their well-selected products, which, in addition to their top-notch artisanal cold cuts and cured fish, include a wide variety of cheeses from around Greece, wines, olive oil, honey and other traditional food items. Even though Fanis opened the second deli in the middle of an economic recession, it immediately thrived – proving one again that quality trumps all.
The fact that Fanis’s new joint was packed all day long and that their small kitchen was struggling to keep up with the demand led him to search for a larger space nearby that he could turn into their main workshop. He found a beautiful 19th-century neoclassical building on the lower side of busy Ermou Street in the Monastiraki neighborhood and started renovations. Around a year ago, in May 2019, he opened this third branch – also called Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani, this branch is commonly known as the “workshop.” In between the painted ceiling and tiled floor, air-dried cold cuts hang in front of glass display cases where more goodies are stored. The wooden furniture is Byzantine-inspired and decorated with the double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Byzantine empire and of the Greek Orthodox church.
The concept and menu are similar to its sibling’s, with the main difference being that Fanis had enough space to build a stone oven, which he uses to bake his legendary prosfournia, or flatbreads that look like oblong pizzas and were traditionally topped with sesame seeds to add nutrition and flavor. After tirelessly researching Byzantine cuisine – you see, Fanis wanted to serve not only tasty food but also a bite of history – he decided to learn the art of making prosfournia, which were baked in the outdoor wood-burning ovens that were common during the Byzantine period.
The concept and menu are similar to its sibling’s, with the main difference being that Fanis had enough space to build a stone oven, which he uses to bake the legendary prosfournia.
Fanis’s prosfournia alone are worth the visit. The dough is made with high-quality local flour and only a small amount of yeast, and then proofed for 24 hours. The flatbreads are topped with their excellent cheeses and/or cold cuts to create a delicious result that is head and shoulders above pizza. Among our favorites is the one topped with creamed, smoked eggplant and feta cheese, as well as the one with spicy minced meat sauce and, of course, the one topped with pastourma.
We’re also partial to their moussaka, which layers eggplant and beef meat sauce, and is topped with Lazaretto cheese from Ithaca island, and then baked and served in a traditional clay pot. Other highlights include their Pontic Greek salad with smoked eggplant, chopped tomato and onions, served with olive-oil wheat rusks, as well as the oven-baked chickpeas with pastourma, and their rice-filled dolmades served with yogurt.
They also prepare delicious desserts like two types of baklava – one a mix of walnuts, almonds and pistachios with honey, cinnamon and clove, and the other with pistachios only – and other desserts inspired by Politiki Kouzina, the cuisine imported by Greeks who lived in Constantinople, often referred to simply as I Poli, or The City. The latter includes kazan dipi (a cream custard with burnt caramel from the bottom of the pot where it is prepared), malebi (a light milk pudding) made of goat milk and seasoned with salepi (an aromatic and flavorful spice coming from the root of wild orchids), and more.
Business had been booming, but then the coronavirus came along. The Greek government shut down all restaurants in early March, although delivery was allowed for those who had the means and the right license. However, many eateries decided to close regardless as they wouldn’t be able to break even. Fanis, too, shut everything down, except for the tiny shop on Evripidou – now called Ta Karamalidika tou Fani as well – that sells cold cuts and cheeses. Adapting to the circumstances, he soon started making deliveries all over Athens. On May 25, restaurants re-opened and so did Fanis’s other two branches, the one on Sokratous and the workshop on Ermou. During the lockdown, he spent his time brainstorming new dishes and organizing an in-house delivery system. They immediately started delivering dishes from the workshop on Ermou, and they soon will be ready to do the same for the branch on Sokratous.
Unfortunately, the Ermou branch has no outdoor seating – many diners prefer to sit outside in the wake of the pandemic. But since Covid-19 cases have remained low in Greece, dine-in seating is now permitted. The workshop is, thankfully, a large space, and one wall is lined with large widows that have been opened wide. So even with social distancing, they are still able to operate the restaurant.
The lockdown also provided a good opportunity to renovate the space on Sokratous and make it a bit larger. They moved the kitchen upstairs, added a bit of extra space to the dining area on the ground floor and built an extra toilet. While other businesses haven’t been able to weather the storm, it looks like Fanis’s small deli empire has adapted to the “new normal.”