Greek-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the Greek Grille’s business, said owner Steve Letzanakis, because “everybody has their own recipes from their mother or village.”
For the rest of us, however, this restaurant just steps from the Winchester Center commuter train stop is a great way to enjoy one family’s take on a classic cuisine.
About the size of pita wrap, the 10-seat Greek Grille is perfect for “grab and go” dishes like spanakopita, or spinach pie ($4.75 as a side order; $13 for dinner portion); tiropita, or cheese pie ($13); and pita wraps, including gyro, lamb souvlaki, steak souvlaki, and, my favorite, the falafel Greek wrap (all $8).
More than the extensive menu, beautiful tumbled marble tile, or glass bakery case filled with tempting salads, assorted Greek cookies, and baklava ($3), what you’ll notice is that it’s a “mom and son” shop. Most days, you’ll find Letzanakis and his mother, Joann. The late shift is worked by his two teenage sons, Jordan and Yanni, with three other employees.
Steve said the restaurant, opened five years ago this September, has attracted a lot of new families moving to the Winchester area from Cambridge and Boston neighborhoods like Charlestown and the Back Bay. These customers, he said, are “discovering us, and rediscovering their single or dating days. Customers say, ‘I haven’t had this since . . . ’ ’’
His mother makes many of the well-known Greek dishes — spinach pie, cookies, baklava, and stuffed grape leaves. But her avgolemono (egg lemon) soup gets special attention. It’s sold in a 12-ounce cup ($4) or quart ($11), and usually is available just from October through May, though I got a chance to try one of the extra batches she made during a chilly week last month.
“They’ll call and say, ‘Do you have the soup yet?’ ” Steve said. “It’s made the real traditional way the grandmas made it. It’s most similar to how they remember it.” I’d agree. The texture is not too thick, not too soupy, and there are no carrots. The rice isn’t overcooked.
The dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves, $4.75) are made fresh, filled with seasoned rice, though Joann says if someone wants ones with meat, she’ll make them with lamb or beef.
I compared them with ones I had in my fridge from a big- box chain. Joann’s were larger, less soaked in olive oil, and you could taste the freshness.
As for the spanakopita — “Oh boy, everybody loves that. It’s an old recipe of my mother’s,” Joann said. It’s made with seasoned spinach, eggs, and feta stuffed in a phyllo dough, then baked till the phyllo is light and flaky. When I asked her for the recipe, she said politely, “I really don’t want to.”
We had the dinner version, which came with rice pilaf and a side salad. We chose the Greek salad, sprinkled with huge chunks of feta.
Another traditional dish we tried was moussaka as a dinner ($13). Moussaka is like a Greek version of lasagna, with alternating layers of eggplant and spiced meat, topped off with a creamy béchamel sauce, then baked. For the accompanying side dishes we chose rice pilaf and “Greek vegetables.”
The vegetables (also available separately for $3.30) are a different spin on green beans. Steve explained that they’re sauteéed with a variety of spices, then stewed for at least 30 minutes in tomato sauce.
The light, flaky phyllo crust on the spinach pie won us over, as did the melded flavors of the baked moussaka. The Greek vegetables, whatever the name, were recognized by my kids for what they are — green beans — and promptly disregarded. Too bad for them. With all its subtle spices, this dish, more complex than the frozen beans I regularly microwave for dinner, would make a perfect meatless meal by itself.
The close quarters allowed us to watch Jordan make our falafel Greek wrap, crumbling the deep-fried balls made from ground chickpeas, then adding onion, green olives, lettuce, tomato, tatzkiki sauce made with plain Greek yogurt, garlic, cucumber, and a little salt.
My teen daughter devoured the gyro pita while expressing curiosity between bites about the meat and sauce combination, with warm, sliced beef roasted on a vertical spit, tzatziki sauce, plus a sprinkling of onions and tomatoes.
I thought the chicken Caesar wrap — declared “the best” by my daughter — didn’t count as Greek food. But Steve later told me he marinates the chicken in a special recipe for four days, making his grilled chicken, used in salads and wraps, popular among customers.
We needed room for the baklava: generous triangle-sliced portions of sweet pastry, the phyllo layers filled with chopped nuts, and dripping in honey. Licking our fingers afterward, we thought the honey-sauce tasted so much lighter.
“A lot of people put light Karo syrup in, but I don’t,” Joann said. Instead, she revealed her secret ingredient — lemon wedges that she adds to the honey, sugar, and water mixture, “so the sugar doesn’t crystallize when the baklava is refrigerated.”
And the generous slices? “I cut them big,” she said with a laugh.Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@ gmail.com.