(STILL) GREEK TO ME

Maria's has new address, same tasty Mediterranean menu.

click to enlarge TARPON SPRINGS-STYLE: Maria's colorful Greek - salad, with the all-important scoop of potato salad. - VALERIE MURPHY
VALERIE MURPHY
TARPON SPRINGS-STYLE: Maria's colorful Greek salad, with the all-important scoop of potato salad.

At its former location on Fourth Street N., Maria's Greek Family Restaurant was something of an institution. Maria's supplied catered lunches of deli meat rolls and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) to hungry members of the rat race, while those lucky enough to sneak away to lunch sat down to a Greek salad and a slice of spanakopita, served by Maria herself. It's the sort of place that serves a whole banana with your breakfast (because you need the potassium!) and would never dream of skimping on tomatoes, no matter how many hurricanes blew through the state. Every new customer was greeted with an enthusiastic "Yassas!" and no meal was complete without a healthy block of feta. I'm happy to report that, at Maria's new location on 52nd Avenue N., there's not an olive out of place.An interior in simple, Cycladean white and blue is augmented with Mediterranean vistas, posters of the Parthenon, and gaily decorated plates on the walls. Clusters of long-armed philodendrons unfold on wires over diners' heads in a mild approximation of a grapevine bower. It's tough to sell Greek island village in a St. Pete strip mall, but Maria's food soon makes you forget any failings in décor.

The classic Tarpon Springs-style Greek salad is well represented in three sizes and with toppings that range from gyro meat to shrimp. Even the small, basic version ($3.99) has more than its fair share of tomato slices, feta, hot pickled peppers and, of course, the all-important scoop of potato salad. I was thrilled to find horiatiki ($5.25) also had a place on the menu. This lettuce-less salad contains cukes, onions, beet slices, bell and hot peppers, lovely lavender olives, several giant blocks of feta cheese, and enough red tomato wedges to make you thumb your nose at other restaurants that whine about shortages. In Greece, horiatiki is listed on menus as "Greek salad" in comparison to continental lettuce salads, but here in Florida, the term refers to the familiar scoop of potato salad on lettuce. As Maria herself explains: "Here it's not Greek salad unless there is lettuce and potato salad, so we call [our] horiatiki 'Greek village salad' to make it clear."

Appetizers hold a valuable spot in a cuisine catering to long afternoon siestas. Maria's dolmades ($3.75 for six) were served with several slices of bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, and a ramekin of tzatziki, which Maria's spells "sazeeki." The tart, garlicky yogurt/cucumber dip was also available in a delicious combo with homemade pita bread. Sailor Boy was especially taken with the spanakopita, a spinach pastry ($3.95) that far surpassed the usual mess of flakes and unidentifiable green mush. Perfectly brown triangles of pastry struck a skillful balance between light and filling, and the spinach stuffing was thoroughly cooked, yet left us feeling we'd gotten our daily greens.

My kid brother, quite possibly one of the pickiest eaters on the planet, came with me to investigate Maria's lunch options last week. He ordered one of her "special" Cubans ($4.55/5 inches, $5.55/7, and $6.55/9) and hasn't stopped talking about it since. With good reason. Though not exactly Greek, the warm, pressed sandwich combines the best of the traditional sandwich's ham, pork, salami, Swiss, mayo, mustard and pickles on fresh Cuban bread, with turkey, lettuce and tomatoes. A short, completely unscientific survey of my fellow diners illustrated that the special Cuban is one of Maria's hottest sellers.

The other obvious sandwich choice, a gyro ($4.25), featured the standard thin-sliced lamb, lettuce, tomato, onion and commendable homemade pita bread. There was a tad too much tzatziki for my taste — I felt it covered up the natural flavor of fresh pita — but it didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the dish.

Entrée choices are few but fabulous. I was particularly enamored of the pastitsio ($8.25), a type of Greek lasagna in which ziti is topped with spicy, cinnamon-scented ground beef and fluffy cream sauce and baked into a casserole. I first discovered this delight in Mykonos, continued my love affair in Astoria, Queens, and even strayed from my Italian birthright to concoct my own version at home. Maria's pastitsio stood up to all competition, no matter the continent. Though the entrées are slightly pricier than most menu items, the cost is mitigated with a free bread platter and choice of soup or salad. I tried the augolemono, a creamy chicken, egg and rice soup with lemon (available á la carte at $2.50/cup and $3/bowl).

Though Maria's isn't open for dinner on the weekends, it serves breakfast seven days a week: seven breakfast combos, and a host of omelets, Belgian waffles and pancakes. Greek touches are dotted throughout the menu in the form of pita, feta, spinach or gyro meat. (We experienced a small snafu when Sailor Boy pronounced the word "ji-roh" rather than "yee-roh," but I smacked him back in line.) The breakfasts were uniformly excellent: omelets fluffy; waffles crispy and puffed; coffee strong; syrup sweet; and the whole bananas that accompanied every plate perfectly ripe.

There aren't a lot of tables at Maria's, and the wall above the counter holds as many "Congratulations on Your New Location" cards as mock-ups of ancient Greek friezes. Plastic bubble-glasses hold Pepsi and Mountain Dew, and the china is thick and serviceable. But none of the diners who have found Maria at the new environs on 52nd Avenue N. seem to care a jot. Fans of Maria's Greek Family Restaurant are folks looking for incredible Greek food at remarkable prices. Fortunately, Maria's got what they need.

Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at diana.peterfreund@ weeklyplanet.com. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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