This is going to be a really, really long story. You’ve been warned.
I have to say that I’m always a little bit embarrassed to walk into a real Greek restaurant in a place like Astoria, Queens. I’m half-Greek, the grandson of Greek immigrants who owned (surprise!) a Greek diner in Boston. My father was born in the U.S., but he’s a classic, chest-pounding Greek who wears his heritage on his sleeve and thinks that all non-Greeks are culturally inferior. My father is a very good Greek.
I, on the other hand, am an incredibly shitty Greek. I don’t speak a word of Greek, I never go to church, I have no plans to marry a nice Greek girl, and I pretty much have no connection to any Greekness whatsoever. I feel very guilty about this.
As it turns out, my lily-white girlfriend (who is as “non-ethnic” as an American can possibly get) has an uncle (let’s call him Uncle Bill) in NYC who is large and German, and he’s actually a better Greek than I am. He grew up in Astoria, and insisted that we go to a restaurant called Opa Opa! in his old ‘hood.
As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by the owner, who knows Uncle Bill quite well. She looked at me, and almost immediately started berating me before I had a chance to say anything. I heard the phrase “shame on you!” several times before we even sat down.
Ah, Greek hospitality. There’s nothing like it.
Thing is, I totally deserved the abuse. Uncle Bill gave the owner a big hug as soon as he walked in the door, and then introduced all of us to her. Naturally, Uncle Bill mentioned that I was Greek, but that I didn’t speak any Greek at all. As soon as he said that, the owner/hostess, a lovely, fiery septuagenarian with a classic Greek accent, started yelling at me. “Shame on you! What kind of Greek are you! Why don’t you learn some Greek like a good Greek boy!” I mumbled some excuses, and probably said something about how my father is a numbnut. She glared at me, laughed, gave me a hug, and brought us to our table in the back of the restaurant.
(For what it’s worth, I do speak just a little wee bit of Greek: I was an altar boy for a couple of years when I was a kid, and I could probably still recite some chunks of the church service in Greek. Too bad I would have no idea what it meant, other than something about God or Jesus or something. I can also say “you have shit for brains” in Greek, but I didn’t think that would be a useful phrase at that particular moment.)
At least the owner didn’t pinch my cheeks, like the old ladies used to at church when I was a kid. If there’s a reason why I’m no longer religious, it might have something to do with all of the cheek-pinching that went on in my formative years in church. (No, I’m not talking about those cheeks, and the priest would never dream of doing anything like that. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
I’m not going to spend too much time ranting and raving about how great the food was at Opa Opa. But yeah, the food was great—better than Mom used to make. (Mom is Russian- and Ukrainian-American, but she learned to make fantastic Greek food.) We had spanikopita (spinach pie made with feta cheese and phyllo dough), Greek-style fried eggplant and zucchini (the first time I’ve eaten that particular dish since leaving home), souvlaki (i.e. Greek kabobs), and moussaka, the national dish of Greece.
I grew up on moussaka. Every holiday—Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, whatever—we’d make spanikopita and moussaka. My sister and mother both pride themselves on their versions of moussaka. Opa Opa’s moussaka kicked both of their asses. Sorry, Mom. Sorry, dear sister who speaks even less Greek than I do.
By the way, dear sister, I bring you a special message from Astoria: shame on you for not speaking Greek! What kind of Greek are you? At least I know how to say “you have sh** for brains” in Greek. (Back when I worked as a bartender, one of my bar regulars taught me that phrase, which tells you what this particular bar regular thought of my intellect.) But at least I speak a little bit more Greek than you do, and that’s gotta count for something.
Anyway, moussaka is something akin to a Greek lasagna, with layers of eggplant, ground beef, and a puffy cream that should ideally have a consistency somewhere between a quiche and a meringue pie. It’s one of my favorite foods ever when it’s good, but I imagine that it’s an acquired taste for non-Greeks.
Whenever I eat moussaka, I think of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is one of my favorite movies ever. The father of the Greek bride is not unlike my own father, who also swore that every word in every language originally came from Greek. When I came back from a semester in Chile when I was in college, my father would make me say things in Spanish, and then tell me in painstaking detail how every word I’d just said had its roots in Greek. I am not making this up.
When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, he would also say things like, “Heh, these stupid WASPs around here. Our ancestors were inventing democracy and writing great works of philosophy when their people were still swinging from the trees.” I basically pissed myself when the same line appeared in the film, pretty much exactly as my father used to say it.
Anyway, back to the moussaka. There’s a great moment in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when the main character sits down in the school cafeteria with a bunch of ditsy “normal white American” bimbos. They’re all eating sandwiches on Wonder bread. They ask the geeky, big-boned, big-nosed Greek girl what she’s eating for lunch. She says, “moussaka.” The bimbos yell “Moose caca!!!!!! Ewwwwwww!!!!!” And then they laugh their asses off while the poor awkward Greek girl feels awkward and ashamed. That always cracks me up, mostly because I know that moussaka is friggin’ awesome.
And Opa Opa’s moussaka was the best ever.
Enough about the food. The night went downhill very, very quickly—and I mean that in the best possible way. I was with my girlfriend Amber and her mother Kim, who was celebrating her birthday. Uncle Bill was born and raised in Astoria, and let me say again that he is a better Greek than I am, even though his ancestors are mostly German. The little birthday celebration was his idea. As soon as we sat down, he ordered a liter of white wine and a half-liter of red wine. Kim wasn’t drinking wine, so she ordered a beer, which rapidly turned into several beers.
Once Uncle Bill had consumed his share of the first liter and a half of wine, he ordered another half-liter. Three people, two liters of wine. Basically, each of us drank the equivalent of a full 750 mg bottle of wine. Keep that in mind.
So for some reason, Uncle Bill started getting nostalgic, and decided to serenade Kim with smaltzy old love songs from the 1940s and 1950s. It was very straightforward stuff, with lyrics like “Oh, you’ll never know how much I love yooooouuuuuuu…” We were sitting right in the middle of a small, tightly-packed room, and we attracted more than our share of attention. Bill just kept singing, with his arm around Kim, who was probably having more fun than she’d had in years. (And she’s a very fun lady—seriously, I’m not just saying that because I happen to be dating her daughter. Kim is fun.)
As our neighbors looked at us with that “man, you guys are fun and really, really funny” look on their faces, Uncle Bill started telling them that they’d just gotten engaged. Next thing you know, all of the customers and staff of Opa Opa were throwing a big “engagement party” for Kim and Bill. Many of the patrons were Greeks (i.e. real Greeks who can say more than “you have sh** for brains” in Greek), so there was lots of shouting and drinking and heartfelt “OPA!” sounds. Nobody broke any plates, though, which suggests that they might have understood that the crazy old couple was completely full of crap about getting engaged.
So, yeah. Kim left with a pink balloon tied to a drinking straw, we drank an absolutely unreasonable amount of wine and Greek beer, ate some outrageous souvlaki and moose caca, saw some of the most hilariously ugly decorations ever found in a serious restaurant, and got lots of congratulatory hugs from the owner and staff on our way out.
If you’re reading the news much lately, you have every reason to believe that Greeks might be pretty darned terrible at running an economy. But damn, they (we?) sure are good at running restaurants and throwing parties.
Opa Opa! Souvlaki
28-44 31st Street, Astoria, Queens
Subway: 30th Ave. station (N, W trains)