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Artopolis: My Big “Phat” Sweet Greek Patisserie… a la Mode
by Athena Efter
“The Cookie Odyssey” turned into quite the sweet venture for a husband and wife team. I set out on my own journey, all the way to the Agora Plaza in Astoria, to try something savory and sweet with an authentic, creative, elegant and homemade touch. I found Artopolis, a hidden nook and cranny of Athenian style Greek comfort with a little French salon character, located right under the “N” train. You can also get there by from the LIE, the BQE, the LIR, the Triboro, the 59 Street Bridge, the Verrazano, I-95 …choose your own route to the sweetest journey you’ll ever take in the whole tri-state area. It’s worth every box, wrapping paper, ribbon and product made in Greece, that get shipped in 40 foot containers, to bring you 100% authentic Greek pastries, cookies, and breads, straight to your big fat Greek party or dining table, where every Greek housewife’s recipe is brought to you by the finest cookie maker in town.
I met Regina Katopodis, one of the owners and the soul of Artopolis and was instantly drawn to her sweet tooth. She welcomed me with a casual and friendly smile, eager to talk about her patisserie, which has been serving customers for the past 12 years. The Agora Plaza was the brainchild of 5 Greek-American entrepreneurs, Niko and Panaghi Pantelatos, Kostas Tzaras, and Angelos and Regina Katopodis. The idea behind the mini mall was to create an Athenian style “agora” or marketplace where you can buy all your Greek specialty products in one place and your baked goods in another.
To my surprise, I found out that the “art” in the logo does not actually refer to the word art. It refers to the Ancient Greek word for “bread”, but I like to think of it, or look at it, as the art of baking bread. I did not make the immediate connection between the word “artos”, which actually means bread and the word “polis”, which means city. I just saw a “city of art” in this lovely boutique patisserie, where the “artos” of bread-making becomes a true art form by bringing the art of the artisan back into baking and turned into freshly baked handmade bread daily and right on premises
When you first walk in, you immediately notice the two kiosks, which, as Regina explained, were conceptualized to be “enticing and inviting to the shopper”. The first concept was the “fourno” or “oven” where you could purchase the savory stuff. The second kiosk represents, in Regina’s words “the alpha and the omega of Greek sweets”. Thanksgiving and Christmas is around the corner and we’ll all be scrambling to shop and drop. I started with the bread corner, with its variety of carefully labeled breads, from olive bread to whatever. I didn’t have a chance to identify each one, but I knew that behind that counter was a loaf of handmade bread or hand-rolled “pites” or “pies” for everyone. There were spinach, cheese and potato pies, and surprise pies du jour. Feel free call ahead to find out if she has a specific pie, like zucchini or meat pie. I stood there inhaling a scent-full of fresh baked yeast, flour, and salt of the earth, straight out of the oven’s hearth.
To my left were two individual and carefully lit, translucent white cabinet doors situated on either side of a buffet table filled with tons of cookies. I felt like a little girl in a candy store, but only this time, I was in a cookie store. There were chocolate chip cookies and several other shapes and sizes of Greek, French, and American cookies. If you want it, they got it, own it and name it. Of course, those cabinets were still open and beckoning me, like the light at the end of the tunnel. What on earth is so special about these cabinets? Why do I feel like they are the door to some kind of crown jewel? Those cabinets, I knew, had something very special and familiar inside. It was a seductive invitation, straight into the gates of sweet heaven. What would I find? Ancient Greek gods and goddesses, all dressed up in white on Mt. Olympus, heralding the future of the world? Did I expect angels all dressed up in white holding trumpets and horns to come flying out of the cabinet? No, not quite. What could it be?
I walked right over to Door #1 where I found the “Anassa” – the queen of Greek cookies. I found the ultimate Greek goddess, all dressed up in white powder and made with 100% pure Greek butter, which led me straight into her vista of the world of Greek cookies. And since it is a French style patisserie, we can call them the crème de la crème of Greek cookies. I discovered kourabiedes, which hold the laurel wreath of distinction for all Greek cookies. I just happen to be a fan of the cookie next door or the “other Greek cookie” – the brown sugar one made of cinnamon, orange, walnuts and spice. Just as sweet and everything nice. They call them melomakarona. Both are traditional Christmas cookies, but I like to call them cookies for all seasons, any time of day, all year round. No stale or burnt oil taste in these cookies.
When you have the kind of love and passion that Regina so enthusiastically and honestly presented to me for sweet and savory treats, you know it’s gotta taste just as good. At the other kiosk, was a French style vitrine of skillfully decorated and handcrafted cakes. Not a single chocolate sprinkle, strawberry, walnut, or edible white chocolate fan out of place. If you prefer pie, you can have it in blueberry, apple, or three berry pie. In the land of the sweet free, you can choose your sweet options, or buy all three and make it a tie! They make for great hospitality gifts to spread the dough when it comes to the season of giving and spreading the sweet taste of love, with no hangover the next day. We all like to have our sugar fixes and highs, upon occasion, whatever the occasion. Yes, they will cater any event you want – weddings, christenings, fundraisers, charity balls, church dances, community functions, graduation parties……if you throw it, they will serve it in perfect shapes, colors and sizes.
Artopolis’ catering treats make for far less complicated eating habits at informal public events when you just want to stuff your face, stand around and chit chat. Those mini spinach and cheese pies and bite sized baklava stuffed with figs, chocolate or walnuts go a long sweet and savory way when you need to keep it simple, fulfilling, and comfortable. Of course, there’s more to this Greek and American sweet dream story. Their continued dedication to bringing you the finest quality product with the finest ingredients, mainly imported from Greece, without the use of machines, is a timeless mission. We’re almost there, but before I get to the gold standard of Greek sweet bread (no, not calf belly), I have to “flip it” out, toss it up, and drop it down for the almighty filo dough. I didn’t get the opportunity to see the pita master at work, but when you make filo dough in the Thessalonikian style, there is a technique involved. Who knew? My mother, who hails from Thessaloniki, never taught me this secret. Regina assured me that this filo dough cannot be replicated in any other Greek city. So let’s go with it. Who ever thought you could soar to such great heights with something as simple as flour, yeast and water?
But since I like to save the best for last, I’m going for the tsoureki or vasilopita, the traditional Greek New Year’s Day sweet bread also served on Easter. Regina assured me this recipe was very special and carefully chosen. I’m not a huge fan of “tsoureki”, but I have yet to come in contact with any recipe that is an exact replica of my mother’s. Before I spill the family secret, I must mention the small fried filo dough slathered in Greek honey and rolled in walnuts, otherwise known as “diples”. Yes, you can put them in your mouth in just two or three bites. No pulling, chewing or holding objects in our hands for prolonged amounts of time that are otherwise uncomfortable when we want to get our “food on” or “cake on” at special occasions where standing room only applies. So if you want those all you can eat buffets of baklava, diples, cheese pies and spinach pies in few simple and tasty bites, Artopolis is the sweet city that makes it all happen.
Before I spill the sweet dough secret, I wanted to share another little treat via Artopolis for all you wedding and christening bound folk. It is the only bakery that sells the one and only Hatziyiannakis koufeta. Artopolis was specifically chosen to be the US representative for this award-winning sugar coated almond, which won the International Taste Award for best koufeta in the world. I will assume then that this award-winning “Koufetiere” knows how to throw down a little Greek tradition with a pretty French flair. But the best vasilopita, tsoureki, sweet bread, or whatever nomenclature floats your boat, is a recipe dating waaaaayyyyy back to the 1700s, and it comes all the way to your New Year’s Day traditional table with a gold lira replica to whomever ends up with the luck of St. Basil. This recipe is special indeed. It comes straight out of Constantinople, so that you end up with a very fine taste of the Byzantine Empire, sweet but not too sweet and 100% authentic. You can even slam dunk it into a cup of coffee or a cup of tea if you want to be casual about it.
If you are in Manhattan, feel free to stop by and check out her new agora, Pi Bakeri, on Broome Street in Soho. You can stuff your faces all you want, to go or to sit, with cheese pies, spinach pies, meat pies, chicken pies and zucchini pies, always made with real pride, great care and lots of Greek passion that began with a great big slice of American pie and the a la mode on the side.