Yia Yia Knows

Athenian Greek Taverna brings it all back home

Top, from left: Athenian Greek Taverna’s pita and dips, lemon potatoes, butter beans and a spread that includes spanakopita and Greek salad. (Photos courtesy of Isobel Media)

Deep within the consciousness of every single person, no matter the ethnicity, there lies the memory of meals prepared by someone from a long-outgrown past. Food is a common thread across borders, and it is that spirit of shared eating experiences that drives Athenian Greek Taverna in Commack.

Opened in 1995 and run by co-owner brothers John and chef Alex Homenides, the Athenian specializes in authentic Greek cuisine prepared in a way that pays homage to the past while evolving with the tastes of today’s restaurant-going public. Chef Alex learned his old-world style of cooking from the generation before him, who brought to this country a way of food preparation that emphasizes simple techniques married with fresh ingredients.

“In Greek cuisine, less is more. Simple preparations is key,” said Alex, adding that Greek cuisine is built on a foundation of four simple ingredients: olive oil, lemon, salt/pepper and oregano. “It’s straight forward and it’s healthy. This is why people in Greece are so healthy and happy and live such long lives.”

The menu at the Athenian takes that philosophy and runs with it. It’s dotted with carefully curated Greek classics like meats and seafood, veggies and grains, along with dips, spreads and imported cheese—all prepared by the Athenian kitchen crew with Alex’s standard for homemade authenticity leading the way. Perhaps the most genuine dishes at the Athenian are the simplest. Yiayia’s Eggplant, for example, is merely fresh eggplant baked and topped with tomato sauce and three cheeses. But the simplicity belies deep and complex flavors, especially in the sauce—you can taste the years of practice that must’ve gone into it.

Even with his mastery of such dishes, Alex still praises those that came before him.

“There’s nothing like the real thing,” the chef said. “As good as I might be, my grandmother’s food is 10-times better.”

Another simple dish that’s elevated in flavor at the Athenian is the gigantes, or classic Greek giant butter beans. These monsters of the bean world are robust, yet tender, as they swim in tomatoes, onions and olive oil. It’s a dish you could imagine being enjoyed just as much 100 years ago. The same can be said for the grilled halloumi, a Cypriot cheese grilled with extra virgin olive oil. Unlike mozzarella, which falls apart at extreme heat, halloumi stays strong—it’s firm and salty, with a taste that is so incredibly unique, as the saltiness fades into a vigorously savory bite.

Then there’s the grilled octopus, a dish so singular in flavor and texture that it almost defies description and begs to be experienced. Alex nets top-of-the-line octopus flown in daily and the process begins in the morning with the octopus cooking with a mirepoix and red wine until fork tender. The chef then chills it and when it’s ordered, it hits the grill with lemon and olive oil. What results is a flavor that is almost a mix between chicken and a hint of clams—it is meaty, yet delicate, but also subtly oceanic and a texture that is incredibly tender.

Athenian Greek Taverna (Photo by Steve Mosco)

Other Greek classics at the Athenian are gyro platters, chicken, beef and pork souvlaki in various preparations, falafel, spanakopita, an ocean’s worth of fresh seafood and a whole-roasted lamb and pork every Friday. Some of the stand-out entrées include the roasted chicken, yemistes pipergies (stuffed bell peppers), the Taverna burger (a house-blend patty of filet mignon and brisket, topped with baby greens, tomatoes, red onions and spicy feta) and kota a la mykonos, that features chicken breasts sautéed with fresh spinach, mushrooms and sliced potatoes in a spicy white wine sauce, topped with melted saganaki cheese.

Throw in classic Greek desserts like baklava and the must-try galactouboureko (an ethereal mix of filo and custard), and what you have is a meal that is meant to bring people together to relate to one another over a cuisine with a proud provenance.

“The act of eating itself is what brings us together. It’s really the last thing we have. We lose that and there is no hope,” said Alex. “No matter what’s going on in the world or what you believe in, you are going to eat. How we do it and with what ingredients, that’s the art of the meal.”

Athenian Greek Taverna, 2187 Jericho Tpke.; 631-499-7660; www.atheniangreektaverna.com

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Steve Mosco
Steve Mosco, the former editor-in-chief at Anton Media Group, is a columnist for Long Island Weekly's food and sports sections. He fancies himself a tastemaker, food influencer and king of all eaters.

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