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A small, framed, black-and-white photo hangs in the vestibule of Stamna, the fine nine-month-old Greek taverna a few doors south of Holsten’s ice cream parlor. The picture shows six identically dressed boys (white shoes and socks, short pants, knit shirts) standing in tight formation with their parents. The burly papa wears a suit and tie. To his right, his wife holds up to the camera their baby daughter, in a frilly white cap and dress.
Alex Nissirios is the second boy from the left. This year, he and his wife, Angela, both natives of the southern Greek island of Karpathios, where the picture was taken about 45 years ago, opened Stamna. It has been busy almost from opening day, and little wonder.
The food is sparklingly fresh and authentic, and it comes zooming out of the small open kitchen piping hot or glisteningly cool, just as it does in the tavernas of Greece. And the tavernas—rather than the upscale but often touristy restauratorios—are where the people of Greece eat and socialize on a daily basis.
Alex and three of his brothers own and run the State Line Diner in Mahwah and the Nevada Diner in Bloomfield. One of the reasons Stamna got off to a fast start, says Angela, is because “the waiters are Greek, and the kitchen help have all worked with my husband.”
The Nissirios’ two teenage sons can be found bussing tables or working the register on weekends, and some of the waiters hail from Karpathios or even the same village, Aperi, as the couple. Chef Mike Sarris is from Cyprus by way of Astoria, Queens. “Everything is homemade,” says Angela. “Nothing comes out of a can.”
The classic moussaka has a luxurious crown of toasted béchamel and a thick understory of tender ground beef and sliced eggplant and potatoes. The glory of the starter section is the hot appetizers, nineteen in all, including Chef Sarris’ Cypriot-style loukaniko pork sausage and halloumi, grilled mild Cypriot goat cheese.
From the Nissarios’ home island comes Karpathian makarounes, which are old-fashioned whole wheat pasta (shaped something like cavatelli) topped with sautéed onions and traditional Greek cheese. “It’s very simple, but when you smell the onions it’s very nice,” says Angela. Before they opened Stamna, she adds, “I waited every summer to go to Greece to eat it.”
Our waiter, Pericles Makris, a senior at NJIT who hails from Aperi, steered us to several great dishes. One was classic saganaki, a hefty slice of fried kefalograviera cheese, brown and crispy outside, tangy and stretchy inside. Another was grilled kalamari with Greek olive oil and lemon. The big portion, beautifully browned yet remarkably tender, included not just the rings but the small crunchy tentacles (my favorite), which are strangely excluded from most orders of fried calamari.
His third pick was fish of the day, brussino (a Mediterranean sea bass). Expertly grilled and filleted, it was rich, moist, and flavorful. The fillets were draped over tender sautéed spinach, a reminder of how glorious this green can be. The fish was $28, but the quality and the generous portion made it worth every precious dollar.
Then it was on to dessert, with Makris pointing us to a light and not too sweet galaktoboureko custard and phyllo pie. Kudos to the loukoumades (a sort of Greek zeppole). These hot, puffy, yeast-risen balls are so good—crisp outside, pleasingly chewy inside, dripping with honey and toasted sesame seeds—that they would turn even hoi polloi into aristocracy.
We owe the Greeks a lot, including words like kudos, hoi polloi, and aristocracy. (A stamna, by the way, is a tall earthenware vase, used to store water. Several nice examples are on display in the restaurant.) Not least, we can give thanks for the bracing delights of Greek food.
But it is perhaps a paradox (from the Greek doxa) that the wonderful loukoumades are not available Friday and Saturday. Don’t get apoplectic (from apoplesso). As Angela explains in an anecdote (from anekdotos), “At home people always have loukoumades for birthday parties. Here, when the kitchen is too busy cooking, it’s hard to find a pot to cook it in.”