In chef Michael Psilakis' hand: a sesame-rolled kristini, which is a savory Cretan breadstick infused with red wine and olive oil. "The first bite is sort of awkward, you just have to let it go, but by the time you get to the fourth bite, it's addictive."
He's right. But then again, Psilakis knows how to get to the heart of what's good about Greek food.
Earlier this year, Psilakis opened a third outpost of MP Taverna (after Roslyn, on Long Island and Irvington, in Westchester), a casual eatery serving modern Greek cuisine in New York City's most iconic Greek neighborhood: Astoria, Queens.
For amNewYork's "Culinary Insiders" series, Psilakis takes us to Astoria for a taste of the traditions he loves and a visit to his restaurant.
Artopolis Bakery, 23-18 31st St., 718-728-8484, artopolis.net
This Greek sweet shop and café is known for its authentic breads, cookies and pastries, including eight knockout varieties of baklava. Everything is made by hand on the premises, and, according to Psilakis, all are the "best of what Greece has to offer, as far as sweets." Psilakis recommends the bakery's buttery, sugar-dusted kourabiedes, "a cookie my mother makes"; spanakopita, or spinach pie; and melomakarona, spiced, honey-soaked holiday cookies.
Plaza Meat Market of Astoria, 2318 31st St., 718-728-5577
Inside this tiny Greek butcher shop, hundreds of sausages hang from the ceiling. The house specialty is loukaniko, a semi-dried sausage cured with either leeks or orange peel, traditionally sliced and pan fried, then served as a meze, or Greek tapas. "He's really the master of this particular sausage," Psilakis says of the butcher. "This is a really unassuming place, but the sausage is tremendous."
Mediterranean Foods II, 2318 31st St., 718-721-0221
This Greek grocery store boasts an impressive olive bar, half a dozen kinds of feta cheese and meze favorites like marinated octopus and tzatziki. Shelves are stacked with imported goods, from regional olive oils to rusks. This is the food Psilakis was raised on; his mother kept a slab of feta out on the table for snacking, accompanied at times by the same Greek-style "Grandma" meatballs he serves at MP Taverna.
MP Taverna, 31-29 Ditmars Blvd., 718-777-2187, michaelpsilakis.com/mp-taverna
Exposed brick gives the bi-level restaurant a rustic charm, as do blond wooden tables, each topped with a glass bottle of olive oil. Though MP Taverna is the new kid on the block, Psilakis isn't trying to compete with Astoria's traditional Greek eateries. The menu and flavors are products of the Greek-American influences Psilakis grew up with, a hybrid he calls "first-generation" cuisine.
Psilakis recommends the tender grilled octopus and the bulgur salad, an underdog "surprise dish" bursting with the Mediterranean flavors of sweet herbs, pomegranates, dates and pistachios.
Here, the focus is less about food as an art form and more as "a vehicle to create memories."
For Psilakis, family and food are synonymous.
"I know this much about Greek food: it's my mother, my father, my aunts and uncles," he says.
Psilakis produces a copy of his award-winning cookbook, "How to Roast a Lamb," a collection of recipes and family stories dedicated to the memory of his father. He opens to a page of faded photographs.
"This is my family," he says, and just like that, yet another story begins.