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Philoxenia Transplanted: Nana Loiselle in New York

The warm, welcoming qualities of the friends I have made in Greece extend to the transplanted Greek people I have met in America. No matter how young they were when they left their homeland, it seems they learned skills there leading to friendships that last decades, and a love for the land they first lived on. Living close to nature, rooted in tradition and food, deeply spiritual and coming from a way of being that includes much laughter and joy along with life's sorrows, they are perfectly suited to dealing with people they have just met. Strangers are welcomed warmly, openly, and genuinely. Strangers quickly become friends.
Thus, it is no surprise that when they leave home to seek a new life in another country, one of the major occupations they pursue is that of restaurateur. The love of food and the concept of philoxenia (a Greek word with two meanings: both guest and fear of strangers!) tht has come to mean the extension of gracious hospitality- is such an elemental part of daily life in Greece that going into the restaurant and hotel business as a life's work is a natural and comfortable, perhaps even destined, result.

Nana Loiselle, co-owner of Telly's Taverna, a popular traditional Greek Taverna in Astoria, New York, is a perfect example. Diminutive, platinum-haired, and endowed with a loving, open nature, she greets familiar faces with hugs and kisses and "Hi, honey!", her H's sounding like Greek c's, moving easily through the busy, crowded Taverna to visit with the many customers who count her among their friends.

Nana and I have been friends for several years. I have eaten her food, laughed with her, traveled with her, shared difficult times. I have met her family both in New York and Greece and sampled family recipes. Over the years I have watched her select fish at four in the morning at the Fulton Fish Market, the huge wholesale market in the Bronx, ripe produce at the vegetable market, various meats at the wholesale meat market and home made Greek sausages and cheeses at specialty food importers. She has thoroughly educated me.
Nana was born Ioanna (Joanna) Giogou in the Castella area of Pireaus, Greece. Raised just across the bay in Argiroupolis near Glyfada, a suburb of Athens seven kilometers from the Acropolis, she remembers a childhood that was filled with the scent of wild thyme and rosemary from neighboring fields on Mount Imitos, and the perfume of flowers and vegetables from her mother's garden. Gathering wild herbs or greens for dinner was a family affair, and probably her earliest memory involving food.

Her experimentation with food began when it occurred to her to change a family recipe by deleting some ingredients and grating a ripe tomato into a chicken soup. She was rewarded by the family insisting that she prepare the traditional soup "Nana's way" from then on.

The inventiveness encouraged within her family has helped her in her profession. Ingredients readily available in Greece are not always available in America, even in New York with its large Greek population and many importers who bring in traditional foods, so Greek food in America often takes new forms. Inventiveness itself becomes an important ingredient. As an example, the original Kafteri is from Miconos, where a special cheese, Xtipiti, is made. A soft cheese, the more it is beaten, the sharper it gets. To reproduce the recipe anywhere the cheese is not available takes imagination and skill. The recipe as it is served at Telly's took Nana several years to develop. And why? Because a customer requested it.

I first met Nana when she worked at another popular Astoria, New York Taverna. Many nights after working the 5 PM to 1 AM shift as a freelancer in the Graphics Department at Good Morning America, I would head for the small corner eatery for a meal and a talk with her, the sole waitress seven nights a week. At that late night- or early morning- hour I was less hungry for food than company: too jazzed from a hectic night spent running all over New York in the pursuit of just the right pictures or props for the next day's show to sleep immediately. And it wasn't just anyone I wanted to talk to. The real purpose- besides the food- was to see Nana and chat with her, even if it was busy, which it frequently was, even at two AM, and even if she only had a moment or two while taking my order.

Nana fascinated me for several reasons, not the least of which was that she had lived in more places around the United States than I had, and Seattle was her favorite, as it was mine. A transplanted Greek married to an American soldier, she had moved on to Arizona, Texas, California, and other adventures with him after the Seattle area, but still fondly remembered the beauty of the Northwest.
It was the force of Nana's personality that was the real magnet. Her loving, effusive, greeting, arms open wide, her face truly glad to see me, made it feel like coming home after a long time away. Probably that genuine enthusiasm is the main quality in her that makes her a great restaurateur.

Running a good Taverna is not simply a matter of ordering supplies and managing people. Before she arrived from Texas and became waitress there, the restaurant was empty much of the time. Although the food was from excellent sources, service was not good, and depending on the chef, quality uneven. After her arrival, everything changed.

She encouraged Telly, a friend for many years, to leave Texas and join her at the small Taverna as chef. Having worked with him in Texas. she knew the quality of his work at the charcoal grill. Between them they turned the once quiet restaurant into a lucrative entity for the owner. The restaurant was often full, no matter the hour, people drawn by the food and Nana.

Taxi drivers heading home after a long shift stopped in to eat, laugh with her, perhaps share a little gossip, make a few deals, visit. Business owners working overtime- and during those years in New York, lots of overtime was the norm- stopped in for a late late meal.

Also during that time the fur business was doing well, and small groups of furriers would come in late at night, bleary eyed from long hours of close work, exhausted, and there would be Nana, smiling and happy. She remembered everyone's drinks, prepared special dishes for them, made people feel at home. Laughter formed on downturned lips and exhaustion was forgotten as Nana's warmth and the excellent food revived them.

Good restaurateurs soon feel the need to have their own space, and it was a foregone conclusion that Nana would eventually move on.

Nana and Telly opened their own place, Telly's Taverna. Greek life is readily available (Astoria, New York has the largest Greek population outside of Greece). Since opening day, attendance at Telly's has grown tremendously; it is perhaps the best of the Astoria Tavernas, due in large part to Nana.

She is vibrant, able to put strangers at ease quickly, identifying wants and interpreting them through her menu, even getting you to try foods and tastes you might never try on your own. A newcomer's "Beans? Perish the thought! I haven't eaten them since childhood." becomes "Please pass the Gigantes!" Beans or not they are superbly prepared. For her, food is seen passionately as life, as entertainment.

Easter is a particularly special time for Nana and Telly. Every year the Thursday before Easter, they close the restaurant for several days to repaint, do needed repairs, spruce up the outdoor garden they are so famous for during the summer months, and generally catch their breath before opening the day after Easter for the busy summer ahead.

Who makes up their Taverna clientele? The answer is in the variety of languages floating in the air. Besides Greek and English, the voices talking and laughing in the busy, light filled space are speaking Hebrew, Spanish, Italian. Nana has learned enough Hebrew to discuss her menu in Hebrew with her Israeli clientele, and speaks some Italian and Spanish. She has traveled to Israel with clients who are also friends, and seen first hand the similarities and differences between the cuisines. After all, fresh fish, vegetables and fruits in season, olive oil, lemon and oregano are ingredients readily available on the Mediterranean. If languages and customs vary widely in the region, the foods are similar, with each country using the same ingredients in a unique way. If the spicing is not exactly like that at home in Israel, Spain or Italy, dishes are prepared so well here at Telly's that it is inconsequential. Excellent food superbly prepared is excellent food after all. And besides, Nana is there to greet you!


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