Back to Basics in Athens Basements

“I know a place where we could have lunch,” said my friend J last Saturday.

We’d had a meeting in Theseion, a colorful district near the Acropolis, and decided to wander back to the train via the Central Market. Neither of us has the chance to do that often, so we enjoyed every step of the way. We passed a church I’d never seen before, perched on a rock;

neoclassical houses in every state of repair from freshly painted to crumbling; a thick stream of peddlers selling everything from original handicrafts to complete junk; half-excavated antiquities; outdoor cafes and restaurants;

Plateia Avyssinias and its flea market; and the miscellany of shops on Athinas Street, where I stopped by a favorite Cretan bakery to buy gritsinia studded with 8 seeds and J “threw an eye” into the tack and saddle emporium next door.

A bit of the Flea Maarket

By the time we reached the Market, we had no appetite for dangling meat carcasses or even mountains of glistening fish on ice. But we were hungry.

So J led me down the street with the vegetable booths, around the corner and across the street. She stopped outside two scruffy brown doors, thick with layers of chocolate paint, and said, “This is it.”

I peered into the darkness. In this neighborhood, there are dozens of basements, but most of them are shops stocked with dry goods, sacks of beans and grains, textiles, ropes. . . I didn’t expect the black hole to conceal a restaurant. And yet, as I negotiated the uneven steps, I could see massive wine barrels lining one wall and about ten tables, all occupied.

A typical basement shop

I followed J to the “kitchen” next to a second set of cement steps, which let in a little light. It was about the size of a galley on a small sailing yacht, separated from the main room only by a till enclosed by a wooden grate. Pots and baking pans filled a counter near the wall. I saw no other kitchen, and no place to prepare the food, but perhaps there is one hidden off limits.

A grouchy looking older man stood by the till and supervised the youngish waiter. He nodded at us to sit at the adjacent table for five, which had two empty seats. Then we realized that two of them were old friends.

It seems Diporto (Theatrou Sq. & Sokratous 9) is an institution. Everyone knows about it but me, and I’ve been here 40 years. How did it escape my notice!

It has obviously escaped the attention of the Board of Health and Brussels hygiene rules, but no matter, we ate extremely well. A big bowl of fava for J and a big bowl of spicy cuttlefish stew for me, though I was tempted by the chickpea soup, which seemed to be the most popular order. The remains of fried fish, salad and something with tomato sauce decorated the plates of our friends, who called for another half kilo of retsina and some fruit.

The waiter obliged, squashing the plate with sliced apples onto the one with the fish bones. Yuck. Our Swiss friend V took the situation in hand and cleared the table herself. And we went back to discussing pension prospects, architecture and synchronicity. When they left, three men, strangers this time, joined us. Our bill was minimal.

History repeated itself on Thursday night. I’d gone to hear the Athens Singers, my old choir, sing John Stainer’s The Crucifixion in St. Paul’s Church near Syntagma. The performance was excellent and there were lots of old friends to catch up with before and after. Including J, who said, “I know a place where we could have dinner.”

She invited another couple and off we went into Plaka, where there was no sign of any crisis, just flocks of young people having a good time. And half way down marble-paved Kythathinaion Street, she steered us into another basement institution, where three laughing women of a certain age were hauling themselves up the uneven steps.

At least, Ta Bakaliarakia (The Little Codfishes) (Kydathinaion 41, 210 3225084) was no surprise to me. It’s been open since 1865, and though repainted a few times, it hasn’t changed much from the early 70s, when I used to visit often.

It’s bigger than Diporto, with two rooms and a kitchen tucked behind a big display case fogged by the steam from simmering pots and pans. And it’s brighter and swankier, with B&W photos and yellowed certificates on the wall, but the same old-fashioned rush-seated wooden taverna chairs and tables.

We didn’t speak much. A guitar- and bouzouki-playing duo were seated next to us. They were singing old favorites, classics that Bithikotsi made famous in the 60s and earlier. But the four of us lapped up the nostalgia, along with the retsina, which is becoming extinct, while dining sumptuously on zucchini croquettes, horta (greens), cod brandade in spicy tomato sauce, fabulous fried potatoes and, of course, fava, J being addicted to it.

As she said, “Basics in the basement, what more could one want?”

And for a couple of hours, we reveled in the illusion that Athens has not changed and all was well in the capital of Crisisland.

RECIPE

Fava

In Greece, fava are split yellow peas, usually served pureed and at room temperature. They are quite different from Italian fava (broad beans). The Diporto fava arrived with a topping of chopped onions, olive oil, black olives and pickled peppers. The Bakaliarakia version was even better. It was made with peas from Santorini, which were noticeably creamier and tastier. The dish is a taverna staple year round, but particularly during Lent.

Here’s how I make it.

2 cups (500 g) yellow split peas

1 large onion, cut in chunks

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt & black pepper to taste

Wash the peas well and place them in a pot with the onion and oil, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim off the scum and simmer for about an hour. The time will depend on the quality of the peas. Test them for tenderness and add more water if necessary to keep them from sticking. They should be quite soft, the consistency of loose mashed potatoes.

You can eat them as is, without zapping them in the food processor, but I prefer the smoother texture. Like split green peas, they will solidify when they cool.

Fava is usually served in tavernas at room temperature with onions, plenty of extra oil, fresh lemon juice. But I like to add capers and sliced sun-dried tomatoes. The other day, though, I made it looser as soup, topped with concentrated balsamic vinegar, hot pepper flakes and some finely sliced fried sausage. Delish.

Fava soup

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9 thoughts on “Back to Basics in Athens Basements

  1. First, you’ve been in Greece for 40 years? Wow! I’ve been here for almost 3, so I know I have a lot to learn.

    I’ve never heard of Diporto but I did know about the one on Kydathinaion, I’ve walked past it many times but never tried it. It’s funny because every time I walked past it, I always thought “I bet that place is really good, I should try it some time” but of course never did, and now I live about as far away as you can be and still be in Greece. It’s not so easy to find really good food in that part of town, so it’s good to know of a reliable place or two. I’ve never noticed that church either… My favorite unknown church in Athens is the one in the park below the temple of Olympian Zeus, called Agia Foteini Ilisou.

    • Heidi, if you ever come to Athens, let me know, and we’ll go exploring. Have you seen the church in the central market district, which has a column in the middle of it? It looks more like a shack. My favorite church is the little one along side the Cathedral, with Early Christian relief panels lining the sides.

      • oh I love that church!! I remember the pain I went through learning its name – Gorgoepikoos, the swift-to-lend-an-ear one. If I recall correctly it’s a reference to helping with childbirth pain in a hurry, but I could be way off on that. I don’t think I’ve seen the church in the central market – I think whenever I go there, my eyes are way too busy with all the shiny things to buy :S We will eventually make it back to Athens… someday… and I’ll take you up on that!

  2. Thank you for sharing this! We ate here yesterday and it was a dream. As many times as I’ve walked in that same neighborhood behind the market and on Evripidou I would NEVER have known that Diporto was there.(we literally had to ask at the cafe neon down the street for the exact location because we still couldn’t find it with the address in hand….it’s that easy to overlook!) I’ve lived in Athens for nearly two years and these type of places are a rare exception, if not nearly extinct (unfortunately). What was even more amazing was that I was eating this super lovely bowl of fava and fresh salad at Diporto (the owner makes his own vinegar, another exception to the norm – and you can taste the difference immediately)….anyway, while I was eating, taking in the pure, unadulterated charm of the place, I realized that I had read about this place a year ago in an interview of Fergus Henderson (of London’s St. John Restaurant fame). He was speaking of a memorable meal at a place in Athens near the meat market, that was tucked away and hidden….and all that was on the menu were beans and sardines, but it was his most memorable meal in Greece. He described the place as everything prepared by the owner with a young man running food to the tables. Well, of course, he didn’t give a name or an address in the interview. I’ve asked Greek friends what or where that place could be, but they had no idea. But yesterday, as I was sitting there having lunch in Diporto I realized that this was exactly the place Fergus Henderson was speaking of in that interview! Just as he described it. So, Diana, thank you for this article on Diporto. If you have any more “secret taverna” type food experiences you can share, please do. Cheers, – JDB

    • Hi Jeffrey,
      How nice to hear from you. Thanks so much for writing. I haven’t been in Athens all summer but you’ve ignited my enthusiasm to explore and find some new places, besides going back for some of Diporto’s fantastic fava. Stay tuned, I’ll get back to you soon.

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