Every city has its culinary hits: Chicago is diehard for hot dogs, Montreal adores poutine and Valencia is proud of its paella. Is it humanly possible to visit, say, Paris and not sample a crepe? We suppose so, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Likewise, Athens has its absolutely-can’t-be-missed dishes. We’d never suggest there are only five things to taste in the Greek capital (that’s pure craziness), so think of this as a jumping off point – an entirely digestible guide highlighting the area’s top eats and where to get them.
No, we didn’t mistake Athens for Naples or Rome. The Greek metropolis is surprisingly a great destination for the Italian staple. For Athenian pizza that will rival those across the Mediterranean, there’s Capanna in the tony Kolonaki neighbourhood. Their pie menu is extensive and drool-inducing, and for good reason. The finished product comes out barely charred, flavourful and sprinkled with toppings both traditional and local. Or, head to New Taste restaurant inside the artistically avant-garde New Hotel for pizza day, which happens each Saturday. Among their Neapolitan-style offerings there are classics like margherita and a prosciutto-covered pie – with smoked mozzarella, rocket and truffle oil – as well as more inventive, Mediterranean-inspired options, like a pizza with asparagus, anchovies and smoked paprika.
This savoury, flaky combination of spinach, feta and phyllo dough can be gobbled up for breakfast, as an on-the-go snack, or during pre-dinner appetizers. Some of the city’s best can be found at Peinirli Ionias, a bakery at Panormou 3 that draws a crowd daily (don’t be put off by the line… the freshly baked dough stuffed with herbs and greens is well worth the wait), and Avocado – a vegetarian cafe where the spinach tart is called Mother Earth.
With roots dating back to the Ottoman Empire, moussaka is a traditional casserole made with eggplant or potatoes, minced meat (sometimes beef, sometimes lamb), and doused with cinnamon, nutmeg and béchamel sauce. Think of it like Greek lasagna. Moussaka hotspots include Paradosiako, in the Plaka, and The Grecos Project, in Syntagma Square.
If you’ve ever been to a Greek restaurant, even at home, you’ve probably seen the sizzling spectacle that takes place each time a server delivers saganaki to a table, literally lighting the pan on fire. Essentially, the dish is fried cheese. But to say it’s only that, or to do the unthinkable and compare it to American mozzarella sticks (the nerve!), would be akin to calling the Taj Mahal just a building in India. We don’t think we’re being too dramatic by calling saganaki a celebration of local white cheese (either feta, halloumi or kasseri). Get an incomparable version at Nice n Easy – the organic restaurant (named for a Frank Sinatra album) covers half moons of cheese with brown sugar and grills them, creating caramelized goodness. The finishing touch: zesty lime-arugula paste.
Beans like favas, lentils, broad beans and chickpeas are a longtime staple of Greek cooking, and continue to have a strong showing on menus. They’re baked, made into stews, soups and casseroles, and sometimes fried. One of the most imaginative treatments can be found at Papadakis, which is owned by top Greek chef Argiro Barbarigou. She slow cooks Paros Island chickpeas for 15 hours, then serves them with tarama salad (a traditional meze made of cured roe). Barbarigou also does a fava bean puree (a cousin of hummus) with capers, anchovies, caramelized onions and extra virgin olive oil.