NEW YORK – The first generation of Greek immigrants went into the restaurant business because on the one hand, it was easier to find a job there, and on the other hand because special skills were not required. Unlike other ethnic groups, they did not settle for a mere paycheck, but they learned the language and the secrets of the kitchen and over time they became cooks, chefs, bakers, waiters, and restaurant owners.
Their catering experience led them to add classic Greek dishes to the menu including spinach pie, cheese pie, pastitsio, moussaka, tzatziki, baklava, and kataifi.
In Astoria, in Brooklyn, and other areas where a large number of Greeks settled, Greek restaurants, bakeries, pastry shops, groceries, and centers for the import and production of Greek and Cypriot products were opened one after the other, and Greektowns were created.
Half a century after the arrival of Greek immigrants, Greek pastries, pies, sweets, and dairy products are found in supermarket chains, restaurants, and catering halls.
This is a real feat because even at the time when the mother country prospered, there was not much investment in promoting Greek products and Greek gastronomy in the US and Canadian markets.
This feat is the product of the efforts of six generations of Greeks and Greek-Americans working in the catering and food industry.
It is also an achievement of the average Greeks and Greeks living abroad who remained loyal to tradition for their families and taught the children and grandchildren, as well as their fellow American citizens, the secrets of phyllo, pies, and other Greek products.
The National Herald contacted members of the Greek community who make and promote traditional Greek pies in their associations, societies, and clubs and teach their children and grandchildren how to make them. TNH recorded their thoughts and the differences that exist in the way the pies and pastries are made.
George Menegatos, co-founder and chairman of the New Yorker Bagels Bakery, based in Long Island City, noted that Kefalonia, where he comes from, “has its own traditions” and that the first generation of immigrants brought those traditions with them and tried to teach them to the children and grandchildren.
Asked about the Kefalonian pies, he said that “the kreatopita (meat pie) is especially notable.”
The meat pie in Kefalonia, he said, is made with phyllo dough and goat meat (mainly the leg), or can be made with goat and pork, or only with pork.
“Our island is famous for its spinach pies, cheese pies, and moussaka with zucchini. We do not use eggplant, but zucchini which we roast,” he said, recalling that the pies in Kefalonia are served with wines produced by the island’s inhabitants.
The associations and the Philoptochos Society of St. Gerasimos in Manhattan have played a major role in maintaining the traditions.
“The pies prepared by the ladies of Philoptochos are not made with a ready-made crust of phyllo, but with a phyllo, which the women roll out with love and care, because the resulting pies are much more delicious,” he added, noting that the Greek expatriates managed to teach the Americans about spinach pie and cheese pie.
Mrs. Toula Kalapoutis, President of the Benevolent Society Ladies of Kastoria, explained that the Kastoria pie itself is made with pickled cabbage:
“In the old days they pickled the cabbages to make dolmades and for their pies. Now we buy ready-to-eat pickled cabbage. The pies can be made with spinach, with onions, and leeks. Drain all the liquid from the pickled cabbage and then put it in the saucepan, adding ¼ cup of butter with water and boil it. When it cools, beat six eggs and 8 ounces cream cheese to reduce the acidity.
Then make the pastry dough with a teaspoon salt, 1.25 cups lukewarm water, 4 tablespoons olive oil, 4 or 5 cups of flour, three sticks butter, and stir, until a smooth and soft dough forms.
Let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes, the dough recipe yields 12 sheets of phyllo, which are placed in the refrigerator to freeze. Remove and roll out the bottom sheet to be larger, brush the sheet of phyllo with butter and pour in the filling, then continue with the second sheet, brush it with butter, and then bake it.”
Konstantina Moulinos, president of the St. Gerasimos Philoptochos in Manhattan, said that they “make with love and care the meat pies, bacalopites, hortopites, spinach pies, cheese pies and traditional recipes.
“The bacalopita is made with cod, which has been soaked in water to remove the salt, and to which we add rice, onion, garlic, fresh tomato, parsley, dill, oil. For meat pie we use meat, thinly sliced. Others prefer beef, lamb, or goat and then add rice, grated potatoes, kefalotyri, a little basil, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and bake at 350 degrees.”
As for the dough, she said they do not use white vinegar, but white wine for a crisper result. The little secrets give a different texture.
“The pie takes time, love and care,” Mrs. Moulinos said.
Virgina Zacharopoulou, wife of the former president of the Evrytanos Association “Panagia the Prousiotissa”, said that they make cheese pies and koursotiri (remnants of melted butter), spinach pies with spinach and other greens, prasopita, and meat pies.
At Christmas, we slaughtered the pigs we made meat pies with rice and pork. We also make baklava, kourambiedes, and other sweets.
Asked if their children make pies, she said that “the kids do not know how and they do not have the time. Those who do not have their mother or grandmother go and buy the ready-made pies in the Greek shops. Pies are not easy, they require a lot of work, half a day and love.”
Eleni Lolis, a native of Ioannina, said she was making cheese pies, spinach pies, koftopites, and meat pies.
“There are no wild greens here and we make the pies with spinach, beet greens, leeks, parsley, and dill. We teach the children. Our girls have learned and roll out their own phyllo better than their teachers.”
For the dough she said it is prepared with 1.5 cups of water, a little salt, pepper, 3 tablespoons white vinegar, 3-4 tablespoons of oil, and as much flour as it takes. You knead it and let it rest, then roll out with joy.
Irene Tsoukas, born in Ioannina, with roots in Leskoviki, North Epirus, said that “I have not lived in my own village, Leskoviki, but my mother has taught us to make the meat pie with onion, pepper, bay leaf, and lamb or beef. Stir in the onion and place the New Year’s coin between the phyllo sheets. My grandfather had four thousand live in Leskoviki, Northern Epirus,” she added.
Symela Trikidou, a native of Pontos, said that “the Pontians carried the traditions to their new homelands and made the piroskis and other dishes according to the products available in their new homeland. Many people used potatoes, while the Pontians who went to Russia used ground meat. There was no ready-made phyllo then and every housewife and mother rolled out her own phyllo. Even the spinach pies are not all the same. They have different ingredients for the filling.” At the same time, she pointed out that the Pontic Russian pirox was made with apricot jam and a few nuts.
The former president of the “Daughters of Epirus” Thalia Stylianou, who comes from Dervitsani of Northern Epirus and grew up in Ioannina, pointed out that all the pies made by her mother and grandmother were wonderful because they were made with sheep’s milk butter.
At the same time, she made a petahti kai platsaria (which was not made with phyllo but with a flour pasta). “On New Year’s Day she made meat pie, pork and chicken, it’s been a long time since I tasted my mother’s pites,” she said. In the past decades, the “Daughters of Epirus” made the pies at home and at the association events they had a “parade with the pies and they treated everyone to some pies.”
Loula Koutsoukis, who with other ladies prepares the pies for the events of the Panagia Prorosiotissa Evritanos Association had just taken the kolokithopita, that she made with zucchini from her own garden, out of the oven and invited us to taste it.
The president of the association, Eleni Kalogeras, who sent us the photos of Mrs. Koutsoukis’ pie, commented that “preparing the pie is not an easy task, it is a rite, it takes a lot of time, love, and care.”
Mrs. Koutsoukis said they are making spinach pies, cheese pies, macaronopita, kolokithopita, and that the quality and taste depend on the recipes and above all on the quality of the ingredients.
We make the cheese pie with the best cheese on the market and with the butter and it becomes light and fluffy, while in the spinach pie we add a variety of greens, onions, dill, and parsley.
Sweet Shops – Bakeries
George Manalis, originally from Andros, opened the Athens Bakery 23 years ago in Teaneck, New Jersey. They produce spinach pie and cheese pie. They buy ready-made phyllo, but his wife Katerina Dikou, originally from Trikala, makes the fillings.
They also produce tsoureki, vasilopites, baklava, kataifi, galaktoboureko, kourabiedes, and “I also bake bread and customers come even from New York,” he added.
Danae Zoi, who together with her husband Alexandros Soldatos had their own bakery in Athens, they now work at Fournos Bakery in New Hampshire and produce “everything related to baking, syrupy sweets, koulouria, buns, bread, pies – cheese pie – spinach pie, galaktoboureko, obviously cream and revani.”
“Our galaktoboureko is amazing,” he added.
Panos Voyiatzis, owner of the Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company in Astoria, reported that they mainly produce bagels in different varieties, depending on the flour they use.
Dimitris Kourioglou, who comes from Kozani and owns F & S Pies, informed us that twelve years ago he opened a wholesale business that produced spinach pies and cheese pies. Two years ago they moved the business to Whitestone, where there was more space and they started to do retail sales.
At the same time, they produce bougatses, baklava, and other products, which can be purchased at shops and supermarkets in the tri-state area, Virginia, and Baltimore, MD.
Giannis Mavridopoulos, vice president and sales manager for Mediterranean Pita, said production began in 1964 and that today, in 2018, they produce six different pites with three different packages each. The company has two distribution centers- one in New York and the other in Chicago, and distribution is done with both their own refrigerators and through large food distributors.
Referring to the pita, he said that they produce traditional, whole grain, multi-grain, and whole grains without preservatives and that things have changed in the pita market.
Asked about the demand, he said it has grown over the last few years because the restaurants have multiplied and draw their inspiration from the grills of the homeland where the souvlaki and the gyro dominate.