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Editor’s note: In the latest installment of our recurring First Stop feature, we asked baker Ianthi Michalaki to share some of her go-to spots in Athens. Michalaki is a baker based in Greece. After trying her hand in several different fields, including political science and medicine, she eventually landed in a professional kitchen and never looked back. After working in several kitchens around Europe, she moved to Denmark to learn all about sourdough and explore the world of gluten. A few years later, while baking in London, she met her now-business partner, Maria, and the idea of opening a bakery was planted. Upon their return to Greece in 2019, they started setting up Kora, a sourdough and viennoiserie bakery in Athens, now celebrating its third year. 

I moved to London in 2013 after living in Athens for five years with my sister. During that time, the first time we really lived on our own as adults, we developed a few routines and obsessions around food that we still follow to this day. They mostly revolved around our then-neighborhood, Mavili Square, and the center of Athens. In the years that followed, any plans to visit home started with picking which day we would go and get ourselves some souvlaki from Kostas on Mitropoleos Street and peinirli from Peinirli Ionias on Panormou Street (yes, both of these would happen on the same day!).

Kostas is a tiny souvlaki place that used to be on a narrow street parallel to Mitropoleos in the heart of Athens (to my great disappointment, I discovered they moved a couple months ago, but have yet to visit their new location). Kostas took over the family business from his father and grandfather and runs it with his wife, Popi. With just the two of them running it, this place makes – in my opinion – the best souvlaki in town. They only do one version of it, the right one: grilled pita bread, pork skewer, tomato, chopped parsley and onion, yogurt and a dash of spicy paprika. Perfection. I would usually go for two souvlaki (no onions – I’m a lady).

Peinirli Ionias is a bakery that focuses on the traditional peinirli and some other adaptations of it. I think the business has been running for almost 25 years, opened after the owner was trained by his father-in-law on how to make this deliciously doughy product. Peinirli is an oval shaped dough (resembling the shape of a boat) filled with cheese and butter in the middle, and baked in a wood-fired oven. The dough itself, high in hydration and rich in yellow durum or semolina flour, is a great base for some of the shop’s other products, like cheese and herb pies, grilled vegetable sandwiches or sausage rolls. I’ll typically order a cheese peinirli (with extra butter on top, if it’s just coming out of the oven). I’ll also get a cheese pie to snack on later.

Kostas is a takeout restaurant. There’s almost always a long queue and most people enjoy their souvlaki on the benches outside or the steps of the church across the street (nothing holier than good food). Despite the heavy guest traffic – something that always triggers me after years of working in restaurants and the service industry – Kostas and his wife are always very relaxed and in a good mood. There are posters and signs all over the place reading “No need for stress,” and Popi happily pours shots of tsipouro to regulars or hangry newcomers. While waiting in line, you can watch your food being prepared on the world’s tiniest grill or read the newspaper clippings on the walls, which recount the establishment’s long history.

Peinirli Ionias is also a takeout place. It’s a lot more crowded and fast paced, as the team (also made up of family members) is busy mixing dough, shaping and baking products. You can’t really focus on picking something as you get distracted by watching the wood-fired oven being loaded with more stuff and trying to get a glimpse of what’s coming out in a couple of minutes.

Both places are as traditional as it can get – both in terms of cooking style and technique as well as ingredients. Focusing on one product allows them to stay close to tradition and maintain quality consistently. Kostas prepares his skewers on a tiny grill that can only fit six to eight at a time, along with a couple pita breads he heats up. The tomatoes and herbs are sliced right then and there in small batches.

At Peinirli Ionia, the dough is mixed around three or four times during the day to make sure it’s fresh and doesn’t over ferment. You don’t get to see such a large wood-fired oven in many places anymore, and surely it’s what makes all the difference. Living so close to Peinirli Ionias, I would start my day there and then take the tube to Syntagma, rushing to beat the queues at Kostas. As this ritual usually takes place before or around noon, a long walk is mandatory after. I’ve also come to find that an ice-cold lemonade helps bring you back to life after such a feast. Lately, I get that along with some halva (you should never ignore dessert) at Wild Souls nearby, before moving on to nap until everything is digested, feeling fulfilled and happy to be back home.

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Published on April 17, 2024

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