From ONE Magazine

Opa! Discovering New York's Greek Enclave

Oficially, Piraeus is Greece’s third largest city, after Athens and Thessalonica. But don’t tell that to Greek-Americans in the New York area. For them, the “third city of Greece” is, in fact, Astoria, a neighborhood on the northwestern edge of the Borough of Queens.

Once home to singer Tony Bennett, stage star Ethel Merman and television’s Archie Bunker, Astoria at its height as a Greek-speaking enclave in the 1970’s boasted an estimated 300,000 Greek-Americans — more than the number of Greeks living in Piraeus.

Economic advancement, marriages, retirement, death and, to a lesser degree, assimilation, have contributed to the decline in the number of Astoria’s Greek-Americans. About 40,000 Greek-Americans remain in this traditionally working-class neighborhood of row houses and apartment buildings. But even as young urban professionals — fleeing Manhattan’s escalating housing costs — and other immigrant groups replace them, Astoria retains its Greek flavor, thanks almost entirely to the abundance of Greek restaurants and cafes, butchers and bakers, churches and clubs.

“We’ve given the area a different color,” said Spiro Svolakos, 53, who came to Astoria almost 30 years ago. “We’ve made it a restaurant town.”

Dutch and German immigrants first settled in the farthest northwestern reaches of Long Island in the early 17th century. Early residents called the settlement Hallet’s Cove, but in the early 19th century renamed it after John Jacob Astor to lure America’s first millionaire to invest there. Waves of other immigrants soon followed. The late 19th century brought Czechs, Irish and Italians, groups that founded Astoria’s Catholic parishes, schools and social clubs. Greek immigrants joined them.

In the 1920’s, new immigration laws — based on nationality — significantly curtailed Southern European immigration to the United States. But after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which ended the national-quota system, tens of thousands of Greeks, many of them from the island of Cyprus, streamed in. Most settled in the New York area, including Astoria, which quickly became the hub of local Greek-American life and a home away from home.

“As soon as you arrived in Astoria, you had your deli, your fish market, your butcher,” recalled Eugene Bouzalakos, who came to Astoria in 1979. “You didn’t even have to speak English. The schools spoke Greek, the church people spoke Greek. You didn’t miss Greece because you had everything.”

When Mr. Svolakos first came to America after graduating from Greece’s merchant marine academy, he rented an apartment near relatives in Manhattan. But after three years, he moved to Astoria. “It was cheaper, yes. But more important, Astoria had all the activities, the atmosphere, of Greece — the political life, the food, the whole environment of cafes and jasmine gardens that you couldn’t find in Manhattan.”

Mr. Svolakos spent six months each year at sea, doing diving work off oil rigs.

“To come back to Astoria, a quiet place with this Greek atmosphere made a big difference in my life.”

The Greeks who came to Astoria brought their cultural heritage with them — their language, their Orthodox Christian faith and, perhaps most notably (especially for non-Greeks with a discerning palate), their food.

“No one knows why so many Greeks became prominent as restaurant owners and cooks, activities for which they brought no special talents from the homeland,” wrote Theodore Saloutos in his entry on Greek-Americans in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. “The Greeks did not necessarily excel in cooking, but the quality of their food was adequate, their prices low, and the bill of fare imaginative.”

For many, the mention of Greek food conjures up images of gyros — roasted lamb served in a pita, accompanied by lettuce, onions and tomatoes and drizzled with a yogurt and cucumber sauce spiked with dill, parsley and mint. But the dish actually originated in Turkey, and perhaps on that basis many proud Greek chefs have hesitated to include gyros on their menus.

“It’s too fast-foodish,” said Zephyr Polimenakos, whose family owns Uncle George’s, a 24-hour Greek restaurant.

“We are a restaurant, not a fast-food restaurant.” (Ultimately, her family relented. “It was ridiculous how many people would come in here and leave when they saw we didn’t have gyros,” Ms. Polimenakos said.)

Greek cuisine features an enormous variety of cold and hot salads, grilled seafood, roasted meats and game, sweet and savory pastries and cheese — many of them similar to other eastern Mediterranean fare. Popular dishes include dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts and mint; moussaka, layers of ground lamb, eggplant, potatoes and tomato puree topped with a béchamel sauce; and baklava, buttered filo pastry with alternating layers of walnuts or pistachio drenched in a honey or rose water syrup.

“In many ways, food is prepared here as it is in Greece,” said Themis Bollanos, a 23-year-old waiter who moved to the United States seven years ago.

“It reminds us of home. That is why people like it. Like filet of sole, red snapper, roast pork, roast beef, anything oven-baked. Of course, souvlaki and gyros are the most known Greek food, but they’re not the best.”

Greek cooking is unpretentious family fare. Even the most elegant of Astoria’s Greek restaurants stay true to tradition; variations reflect the mountain or island origins of families.

“You can get the same food here that you would in Manhattan for a fraction of the price,” Mr. Svolakos said. “It’s not going to be a big dish with a little food. It will be a normal dish with a lot of food.”

For those early Greek immigrants who diligently saved their paychecks, going to restaurants was a luxury. Rather, they would buy food at Greek groceries to prepare at home. Today, such stores do as much to draw people to Astoria as do the restaurants.

Each week, Titan Foods sells up to 25 110-pound barrels of its most popular brand of feta cheese, Arahova. It also sells 3,000 containers of Greek yogurt (which is thicker than yogurt made in North America) and 50 cases of Greek olive oil. The store takes phone and internet orders, shipping out as many as 20 packages a day.

“During the holidays, when you come here, you can barely walk inside the store,” said store manager Mike Kallas. Busloads of people from out of state often arrive to stock up on Greek goods, he added.

Non-Greek-American stores also cater to these shoppers. “Even the Korean-owned stores have signs with the Greek letters,” Mr. Svolakos said.

When Mr. Svolakos’s relatives visit him they make sure to visit Astoria’s grocery stores and stock up. “When they come here, they look like survivors from the desert.”

Younger, third- or fourth-generation Greek-Americans also frequent the stores, but their buying habits are different, said John Gatzonis, who has owned Akropolis Meat Market for 33 years.

The older generations “would work seven days a week, 14 hours a day to provide for their families,” he said. “They knew they couldn’t afford to eat out at restaurants.”

Thirty years ago, he often sold an entire lamb to a family. Now, many of his younger customers come to buy a single steak. Still, he appreciates that the younger generation remains interested in Greek cuisine and is generally more willing to tweak old recipes.

“The youth today are used to the Food Channel and Gourmet magazine,” Mr. Gatzonis said. “They come in here with recipes asking what would be good.”And the older generation remains. Recently, Mr. Gatzonis admired the care an elderly woman took selecting each of her four steaks from the huge assortment on display.

As with all New York neighborhoods, Astoria is evolving. Along a single block of 30th Avenue, the heart of Astoria, you now find many non-Greek ethnic restaurants: Go Wasabi, Thai Angel Kitchen, Aladdin Sweets and Delicatessen and Gandhi Haute Cuisine. Around the corner, on Steinway Street, there are hookah lounges with signs in Arabic.

The shrinking Greek-American presence is a sign of upward mobility. “Very wealthy Greeks don’t live here,” Mr. Svolakos said.

“They live in Manhattan, and they’re not familiar with life here.”

About two years ago, Mr. Svolakos moved to Bayside, a more affluent neighborhood of Queens. But every day he passes through Astoria and shops to stock his refrigerator.

Indeed, the foundations of Greek life in Astoria remain, including St. Demetrios School, which enrolls more than 600 students from preschool through 12th grade. The school, affiliated with St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral, also offers after-school Greek classes; some 200 youngsters attend daily.

This vibrant core of Greek life in Astoria is what drives some Greek-Americans to continue to move into the neighborhood, just as others are leaving.

Chris Chrysostomon, a 38-year-old restaurateur, first settled in Virginia after leaving his native Cyprus. But the tug of the homeland brought him to Astoria. In Virginia, “you miss home,” he said. “If you go somewhere else besides New York City, you feel alone.”

Mr. Chrysostomon said he is trying to raise his children in the Cypriot tradition, sending them to Greek schools. (His wife is Bulgarian, but she speaks fluent Greek.) Meanwhile, he spends long hours six days a week at his restaurant, Aliada.

At times, he thinks it would have been easier to run a Greek restaurant in Virginia.

In Astoria, “the Greek customers are very difficult, very judgmental,” he said. Greek-Americans are familiar with the cuisine and expect the same recipes that they have at home.

“It’s such a tremendous challenge to compete in Astoria. You have to be different from everyone else. And if you don’t do it the right way, someone else will.”

But Mr. Chrysostomon is quick to credit the restaurant — and food in general — with helping him forge ties within the community.

“We’ve been to weddings and baptisms of friends we have met here,” he said. “It becomes a family.”

Many Greek-Americans hold on to traditions that have been abandoned in the old country.

“One thing about Greeks,” said Maria Bouzalakos, “they like to see people eat.”

“And if there are four of us eating, I set a table for five,” added her husband, Eugene. “Always, someone comes. If not, I have set a place for Christ.”

“I go to Greece a lot, and I lament to them how they’ve sold their heart and soul for the euro,” said butcher John Gatzonis.

“They have given up their religion and have become Europeans,” he said, recalling a recent trip to Greece when he saw most Greeks disregarding the traditional period of fasting preceding the feast of the Dormition of Mary in August.

“If one wants to see a Greek now, you don’t go to Greece, you go to North America or Australia,” he said. “I’ve evolved, but to some extent I’m the same Greek I was in 1956.”

The family meal is one of those traditions preserved by many of Astoria’s remaining Greek-American families.

In all eastern Mediterranean cultures, “the meal time, the dinner time is a sacred time,’ said Father George Anastasiou of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

“Christ instituted the Last Supper as a meal. To eat with your family is sacred. You can see that to this day in Greek culture. We don’t have that American style of eating. We all order six, seven, eight dishes, and it becomes a familial thing.”

Though the duties of parish life mean that he is on the go, Father George remembers fondly the lingering meals of his childhood.

“We had three generations eating together for an afternoon meal,” he said. “To not do so is almost like heresy. There’s no such thing as ‘I’m going to grab a burger with my friends.’ ”

Freelance journalist Vincent Gragnani is a frequent contributor to ONE magazine.