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,
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
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
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
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!