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Pontos Taverna Serves the Cuisine Greeks Brought to Norwalk

Greek refugees from the Pontos region on the coast of the Black Sea took with them their cuisine and cultural artifacts, and both can be found at this Greek restaurant on Isaacs St. near the Garden Cinemas.

To dine at Pontos Taverna is to savor fresh Mediterranean flavors amid museum-quality artifacts of traditional Greek culture.

Pontos is the historical Greek designation of a region along the southern shore of the Black Sea colonized by Greeks in antiquity. It is where Jason and the Argonauts sailed to find the Golden Fleece of Greek mythology. 

Centuries later, Greek historians say, the Pontian Greeks were driven out by Turks in a bloody "ethnic cleansing" campaign that ended in 1923. The memories of that horror inspired the creation of Pontian societies around the world to keep the ancient culture alive.

Along a side street off Wall Street, the Norwalk Pontian Society operated one of those private social clubs until recently, when it entered a lease for Pontos Taverna. (The club continues to use the space on Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, for language lessons and folkloric dancing and music.)

But from Tuesday through Sunday, the enterprising Kiriakidis family—descended from Pontic Greeks—serves authentic Greek fare that would have pleased their forebears.

Everything is fresh and prepared on-site, from stuffed grape leaves (dolmades) to tzatziki (cucumber-garlic-yogurt salad) to homemade gyro off the spit to classic honey-and-walnut baklava. Most dishes are brightened with drops of fresh lemon juice.

Beets are garden-fresh, there is a pan-fried whole fish of the day (porgy was the choice recently) and all is authentic Greek from the avgolemonu (chicken lemon soup (cup $2.75, bowl $4.75) to the xoriatiki (classic Greek salad $11.95) to the tirokafteri (warmed feta with tomato and hot pepper $7.95) to the tigania (sauteed pork or chicken chunks $9.95).

Pikilia, an a la carte selection of meats and salad, is $15.95 for one, $28.95 for two. Daily specials frequently include eggplant-based moussaka and pastishio, a Greek-style lasagna.

An application for a liquor license is pending. Soon, authentic Greek wines are expected to be available by the glass or bottle.

Since Pontos opened in April, the most popular entree has been the gyro off the spit, a savory mixture that roasts and spins for an hour to achieve perfect doneness. On a busy weekend day, said Kiriakidis family matriarch and baklava baker Anna, the family-friendly restaurant will go through 3 gyros.

Among the younger set, Souvlaki - pork or chiken roasted over charcoal on a skewer - is the most fun and affordable ($2.95) choice.

"Kids love it," she said. "On a stick they have fun. They all leave happy."

So it is as well for local descendants of Pontic Greeks, as they dine surrounded by the tools, pictures and other bits of property their fleeing families carried on foot and by horseback.

"The grandmothers donated them to the Pontic Society," Anna said.

The Kiriakidis family—Anna's husband Theodoros is executive chef, son Nicholas is owner, daughter Faith is a server—is all well versed on the provenance and use of the antiques mounted on the walls.

For example, the mid-bulging wooden barrel called the laesera was hand-shaken by the woman of the household in Salonika, where many fleeing Pontic Greeks settled, to create butter from goat milk.

The hand-carved wooden pinakoti with 6 separate bowls was used in bread-making, along with a pirifty, a long-poled implement to move baking bread loaves within stone ovens common in the Greek countryside.

A board fitted with hard rocks—the trifti—was used to grind wheat and corn, hard labor that Anna watched her mother carry out in the family's stone house (with a clay roof and earthen floor) where she grew up. She emigrated with her husband to the U.S. in 1980. The family eventually expanded to include seven children, each with classic Greek profiles.

Anna's parents, Thespina, 79, and Stamatis, 80, still live in the old country.

A handmade wooden shovel and rake on display—garden tools once common in the Greek countryside—bespeak a simpler time, as does the hand-carved ox yoke.

It was Anna's chore as a child to drive long slender poles through tobacco leaves for curing, she explains as she points to a painting of a tobacco-curing scene of her homeland.

A painting by Theodoros' sister, Stella Tsirakiolis, depicts the expulsion of Pontic Greeks across a desert landscape.

"It is a sad story. The Greeks were slaves to Turks. My grandmother was chased out," Anna says with feeling. "Right now, the people are different and Greeks and Turks are friends, but it still hurts."

A glass case protects richly ornamented dancing costumes once worn in full-circle village merriments, as well as handmade lyras, stringed instruments heard on recordings Anna will play on request. 

Pontos Taverna is located at 7 Isaac St. in Norwalk. Hours are Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., closed Monday. (203) 354-7024. www.PontosTaverna.com.

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