Most know New York City as an Italian immigrant stronghold, but another Mediterranean community has been establishing roots here for a while too. Just over the river in Astoria, Queens, many settlers from Greece call New York City home. Thousands of years of Greek history are compressed into this dense neighborhood, where blue and white, the colors or the Greece’s flag, prevail. And while other sections of New York City can feel closed off or unwelcoming, Astoria beckons visitors with outstretched arms.
In the constantly changing scene that is New York, I crave authenticity and tradition. So for me, there’s no place to be like Astoria. St. Demetrios Cathedral anchors the neighborhood, with services open to all and conducted in Greek. Just around the corner, Gus, the proprietor of an eponymous souvlaki cart, is always eager to tell those willing to listen about the history of the neighborhood and the community that found their way there. Gus came to the states as a teenager looking for a better life, but one that was still connected to home. His kids are born and bred New Yorkers, though quick to add they’re “of the Greek-Astoria variety.”
The products found in Astoria are unlike those at Manhattan’s ubiquitous supermarket chains, including those considered gourmet. With immigration comes the importation of the homeland’s foods. So too comes a shipment of the homeland’s culture—in this case, infectious dynamism.
Butchers and shopkeepers hold down the fort at the entrances to their stores, joyfully chatting with anyone who so much as pauses to make eye contact. Most shops stock handcrafted artisanal foodstuffs imported straight from only the best producers in Greece. And as eager as the shop owners are to share their knowledge of the inventory they stock, they’re keen to impose a taste of the good stuff on anyone who shows the slightest amount of interest.
As soon as I lean in at the faintest angle, one butcher rushes over to proclaim, “The sausage here is made with love! And with my yaya’s secret recipe!” He is an inch from my face as he speaks.
At Mediterranean Foods, the owner assures me that his yogurts are “the best around!” He claims that they’re made only from the milk of a carefully selected group of goats.
“Which goats?” I ask.
This is a secret he doesn’t dare share.
The aromas emanating from bakeries like Yaya’s and beloved establishments such as Taverna Kyclades fool me into thinking I’m back in the Greek Isles. I can’t help but swing by Taverna Kyklades on my way home, in spite of the two-hour wait I know I’ll face judging from previous visits. Luckily, the charismatic staff at Taverna Kyklades knows how to compensate for any inconvenience: They serve ample Greek wine and fresh baked bread to those awaiting a table. Festive to the core, dining at this restaurant feels like attending a family gathering, no matter how many patrons are total strangers.
Astoria is a neighborhood that pulls you in, fills you up and makes you yearn to stay. But alas, home I must go. Because tonight, I have a cocktail party to throw.
When my foodie friends arrive at my apartment, they’re greeted with a spread of the snacks I procured from Mediterranean Foods: yogurt, cheeses, olives and specialties of the highest quality. I can tell within minutes from my guests’ satisfied expressions that these libations are some of the best I’ve ever served. As an added bonus, the food was inexpensive. Recreating the hospitable Greek vibe inside my home after spending time in Astoria, on the other hand, is priceless.
Images courtesy of Sarita Dan