Cyprus’s tavernas are famous for flame-grilled meat, fish and halloumi cheese, but go to an islander’s home and you’re much more likely to find a pot of something slow-cooked simmering on the stove. Mageireia are traditional Cypriot restaurants serving this comfort food at reasonable prices. We think Mattheos, a tiny family-run lunch place located behind the Faneromenis Church and beside a disused mosque in Old Nicosia’s most picturesque square, is one of the best.
Its owner, 65-year-old Mattheos Georgiou, comes from a family of 13 in a village in the Troodos Mountains southwest of the capital. As a child from a poor background, he was fostered by the chef to the much-revered Archbishop Makarios III, Cyprus’s first post-independence president, and learned to cook the hearty bean, pork, lamb and vegetable stews that are the staples of Cypriot home cooking.
After the 1974 Turkish invasion of the northern third of Cyprus and subsequent division of the island left the restaurant he had been working at crumbling in the buffer zone that cuts through Nicosia, Mattheos moved to Saudi Arabia. There, he worked as a chef, saved enough money to come home and marry, and opened this restaurant in the southern part of the city’s Old Town in 1983.
“We serve local dishes and we don’t add fancy things. You come here and you eat your beans; it’s good, honest food,” said Mattheos’s daughter Athina, who sources all the produce from local markets and farms and is always on hand to explain the daily specials to non-Greek speakers. The restaurant’s aim is to treat everyone like family, whether they’re regulars or tourists, she said.
Mattheos himself is up before dawn six days a week to have around 30 big pots ready for lunch. Nothing has been previously frozen, except for the artichoke hearts, which he buys in season and trims himself.
Dishes include pork afelia, the meat braised in red wine and coriander seeds; lamb tava, chunks of spoon-ready meat flavored with cumin and fenugreek; quails cooked in red wine; wild rabbit; and tender vine leaves, eggplants and zucchini stuffed with rice and minced pork. There’s a huge choice of vegetable dishes, among them those artichoke hearts cooked until they’re soft and finished with peas and tomatoes, and a variety of pulses that could include black-eyed peas with marrow and lemon juice, or white beans in a rich tomato sauce, depending on the season. And there’s always kolokasi – taro root in a tomato, celery and onion broth.
Everything comes with a side of Cypriot pilaf – a mixture of bulgur wheat and vermicelli – and potatoes cooked in meat stock. You start your lunch with a little plate of crunchy raw scallions and radishes and a generous hunk of rough-hewn village bread, and finish it with a complimentary portion of Mattheos’s wife Yianoula’s dessert of the day. That might be a moist apple cake; galaktoboureko, semolina custard in phyllo pastry; or her version of mahalepi, a fantastically gooey, sweet corn flour pudding flavored with rosewater and sprinkled with pistachio nuts. It’s all proper old-style food from scratch. There’s nothing glamorous about any of the dishes, but you leave feeling warm, nurtured and very happy.
The interior is a clutter of old photographs, newspaper cuttings and trinkets, including two beer bottles rescued from the restaurant where Mattheos formerly worked, now in the buffer zone, years after it was abandoned. The small kitchen in the back is open and there are just 10 tables inside and five on the square outside.
On a wet Monday in January, the restaurant was full of locals, and Mattheos buzzed from table to table, greeting everyone by name and full of energy. “If you want to be a success you have to do what you love, and I love what I do. That’s why I’m up and cooking at five every morning,” he said.