You might not want to yell "Opa!" after dining at Athens on 4th Avenue, but an enthusiastic "Nóstima!" will work just fine.
It's a context thing: "Opa" means party, and while dining at Athens can be a party, "nóstima" means delicious, and dining at Athens will be that.
Hands-down, Athens is the most authentic Greek restaurant in town.
Andreas Delfakis opened the restaurant in 1993, and two of three daughters still work for him: Jeannie Delfakis Benavente serves as kitchen manager, and Cyriana Varnasidis manages and cooks.
Photos of Benavente's sons, one of a 4-month-old Andreas in a chef's pot (he's now 8 years old), greet you when you walk in.
Diners eat in one of two quietly elegant dining rooms. On both visits, the service was outstanding, with each server friendly and knowledgeable.
The menu includes just about every Greek dish you can imagine, and then a few more.
And the wine list has some of the finest Greek wines you'll find in this city, including Sigalas Santorini (100 percent Assyrtiko grape) - one of the best Greek whites available in the United States.
On our first visit, we started with the tiri saganaki appetizer ($8.95).
Kefalotiri, a sheep's milk gourmet cheese, was dusted in flour and sautéed in clarified butter.
Our server poured a shot of brandy over the top, then lit the alcohol and exclaimed, "Opa!" The flame was put out with fresh lemon juice, which seared a succulent crust over the cheese.
This dish packed a wallop of flavor and was served with soft pita triangles shipped in from Olympia Gyros Co. in Chicago, which is owned by relatives.
Olympia also makes the lamb and beef gyro meat for the gyro appetizer ($10.95), which is another great place to start your culinary journey at Athens.
Rotisserie-broiled spiced lamb and beef were thinly sliced and served along with mixed greens, tomatoes and cucumber, cubes of feta cheese, Kalamata olives imported from Greece, tzatziki sauce, and Olympia pita triangles.
Athens makes its own yogurt for its tzatziki sauce, adding to the memorable creaminess redolent with fresh garlic and double the amount of cucumber of traditional tzatziki.
Benavente said the restaurant goes through 20 gallons of tzatziki a week in summer and double that during high season.
Both soups on the menu are worth a try. Vegetarians will love the vegan lentil soup (small $4; large $7), a hearty mixture of lentils swimming in a crushed tomato, sweet onion, fresh garlic, herb and extra virgin olive oil base. You could taste the garlic with every bite.
Avgolemono soup (small $5.50; large $8.50) uses a family recipe and Athens' chicken stock to make a very thick, traditional soup.
Rice is added to the stock and stirred slowly to release the starch from the rice. Fresh lemons, eggs and chicken make a hearty soup with chunks of chicken breast and lemon flavors.
The Gleekathakia ($17.95), or Greek sweetbreads, is one of Athens' signature dishes. Sweetbreads here are the thymus gland of veal and are very mild in texture and flavor.
They were lightly dusted in flour and sea salt and pan fried in extra virgin olive oil to a perfect crispness.
The sweetbreads, some of the best we have tasted, were removed from the pan, and a white wine reduction created with tomatoes and scallions. It was served with a small salad.
Kakavia ($24.95), or fishermen's seafood stew, was a melange of seafood selections, with eight ounces of prawns, mussels, clams, salmon and calamari simmering in a savory tomato base with citrus, herbs and dry white wine. Athens makes its own marinara and goes through about four gallons a week.
Another specialty is braised lamb ($16.95), a shoulder chop seared in extra virgin olive oil and braised with tomatoes, onions, a bit of cinnamon and other spices.
The lamb was served with the vegetable of the day, in this case, a tasty plate of flat green beans, and a side of al dente linguine.
To round out our Greek tour, we ordered moussaka ($15.95), another staple.
The baked layers of flavorful ground beef, grilled eggplant and potatoes were topped with a rich bechamel sauce.
One drawback: The hefty piece of moussaka came out a bit mushy, with overcooked potatoes.
But the flavors were great, and 95 percent lean beef is used, effectively canceling out the calories of the bechamel sauce. Or so we hope.
We tasted some nutmeg in the dish, even though only a half-teaspoon is used for every five pounds of beef.
I'm a sucker for rice pudding, so we shared a cinnamon-topped bowl ($4.75) to end an already memorable evening.
The pudding was slowly stirred to create thickness, and its ingredients make up the perfect dessert: Whole milk, rice, eggs, vanilla and sugar, all sprinkled with cinnamon.
And this one didn't disappoint. The creamy rice mixture's sweetness balanced with the spicy undertones of the cinnamon.
it's greek to me
Catering to requests from their Oro Valley and Catalina fans, the Delfakis family recently started serving Greek fare at 15920 N. Oracle Road.
George Varnasidis runs the new place, It's Greek to Me, which was an existing restaurant the family took over and renovated. The menu is similar to Athens on 4th Avenue.
Athens on 4th Avenue
500 N. Fourth Ave., 624-6886.
• Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
• Family call: There's no kids' menu, but the kitchen will customize for kids.
• Noise level: Nice and quiet.
• Vegetarian choices: A few.
• Dress: Casual.
• Reservations: Recommended.
•Prices: Entrees range from $10.95 to $24.95.
• Wine list: Impressive selection of Greek wines. The list ranges from $22 to $65.
• Happy hour: A 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday happy hour features $3, $5 and $7 appetizers and drinks that include Greek beers, ouzo and glasses of house wine for $3, call drinks for $5 and top-shelf drinks for $7.
• Etc.: A parking lot is behind the restaurant off East Sixth Street.