Friday, June 26, 2009

Restaurant review: Pithari Taverna

For fabulous Greek food, you could hop a flight to Santorini or Crete, but why not grab your GPS and head to Highland Park, New Jersey? Pithari Taverna is the real thing. The owner, Tassos Stefanopoulos, will welcome you into the casual restaurant, which is decorated in traditional Greek blue and white. Take a peek into the open kitchen where the chef really is Greek!

When you're seated, you'll be served a selection of olives in garlicky extra virgin olive oil and a basket of fresh warm pita cut into triangles. Don't miss dipping the pita into the oil! The menu at Pithari is extensive, offering all of the traditional Greek dishes you'd expect.

For starters, we've tried a number of options, but there are two we never miss. The grilled octopus is other-worldly - there's a reason the menu boasts, "We are famous for it!" Served in a shallow copper pot, three tantalizing tentacles in a simple mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar and dried oregano will leave you begging for more. If you've never tried octopus or think you won't like it, forget your fears of this eight-armed creature and order this appetizer! Tender, juicy, and extremely mild, it's not to be missed.

Our other favorite is saganaki. Kefalograviera, a dense Greek cheese, is lightly batted and then fried. Served on a sizzling platter, drizzle it with a bit of lemon and eat pieces of it on the pita. A little salty, a little chewy, and a lot cheesy, it's a great start to a meal and a crowd-pleaser.

You'll notice that the list of entrees is quite lengthy. Broken into a few categories, there's something for everyone. The first group are traditional Greek specialties, things like Moussaka, Pastitsio, Spanikopita, several lamb preparations and more. Under that is a section of Souvlaki and Gyro offerings. I don't typically order chicken in restaurants, but the chicken souvlaki is tender, juicy and packed with flavor. Served with tzatziki and your choice of starch (get the lemon potatoes), it's a simple, yet hearty meal perfectly prepared.

On the next page you'll find grilled offerings and seafood entrees. Fresh fish is a specialty at Pithari and they always have some Mediterranean fish available. You might find red mullet, porgy, orato and more, all imported fresh!

On our most recent visit, I tried a new dish while my husband went for an old favorite he hadn't tried in awhile. His dish, Arni Fricase, is a hearty stew of lamb, Greek artichoke hearts and dill in a lemon egg sauce. For a stew, the sauce is lighter than you might think. Definitely rich, the lemon lightens the taste and dill adds a unique flare!

I opted for Arni Kokkinisto Makaronada. This one had chunks of lamb as well, but the sauce was tomato based and it was served over a bed of homemade pasta, similar to a bucatini. Between lamb and pasta, I found bits of feta and they also gave me some grated Greek cheese to sprinkle on top. The lamb simply melted in your mouth and the pasta was cooked perfectly. The portion was huge so we took half home (especially after saganaki and octopus).

Sadly, I had no room left for my favorite dessert. Galaktomboureko is made from layers of fillo topped with a silky custard and more fillo. The whole thing is drizzled with Greek honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Few desserts are this good. Period. (I've been known to get one to-go if I'm too full!) Authentic Greek coffee is a great companion to this lush dessert.

Pithari Taverna is a restaurant we visit again and again. We've brought family and friends there and all return for more. Authentic Greek food in a casual setting with a gracious host - who could ask for more!?

Pithari on Urbanspoon


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