The Greeks serves up authentic Mediterranean flavor with a side of familial love.
There’s a word in Greek that’s difficult to translate into English. Nikoletta Kalogeropoulos struggles to put a finger on it as we sit at a table in her family’s restaurant on the ground floor of the Beech View Place apartment complex on Beechurst Avenue. The word is important to her because it describes an aspect of Morgantown that initially drew many of her family members here to open their business, aptly called The Greeks. “People here really love their city. They have this emotion—I don’t know how to say it in English,” she says. They love their sports teams, their local businesses, their events. “They take pride in all of it,” she says. It’s like patriotism or town pride—but much deeper. Her husband’s aunt, Anastasia, speaks up from a seat beside her. “In Greece we are like that, too. We love our country,” she says.
As the two women mull over how to describe this ephemeral quality, the smells of coffee, thyme honey, and tangy yogurt waft into the crisp, blue and white dining space from the kitchen, where the restaurant’s coowner and chef, Dimitri Kolettis, Nikoletta’s cousin by marriage, gets ready for the day. He tells me that the scents of cooking, especially the gyro meat heating up on vertical rotisseries behind the counter, often draw the student population right down from the apartments above the diner.
Sure enough, even though it’s not quite 11 a.m., when the restaurant opens, a few young men speaking a foreign language push through the door. They belly up to the counter to order fresh crepes and hot coffee. Chef Dimitri politely directs them to the other side of the restaurant, the café side overlooking Beech View Place’s quiet courtyard, as he heats up the grill. “A lot of Middle Eastern students in town really enjoy the food here. It reminds them of home,” he says.
Meanwhile, Nikoletta and Anastasia have given up the search for the right word. In the end the translation isn’t important, but the emotion behind it is. The pride the people of Morgantown have in their city is what gives Nikoletta, her husband—also named Dimitri—and his cousin the chef such high hopes for the business. It’s why quite a few of both Nikoletta’s and the Dimitris’ family members chose Morgantown to put down roots. Some are newly arrived from Greece, like Chef Dimitri’s young sister Savvina, now in high school. Others, like Nikoletta, were in this country and moved to Morgantown for its proximity to metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, where Nikoletta’s mother, Anna Saker, has lived and worked for many years. “We rolled the dice and now we’re here,” Chef Dimitri says. “And the plan is to stay.”
For the chef, especially, opening the restaurant was the culmination of a lifelong passion. He was born in Greece and, after spending the first 10 years of his life in Florida, grew up on the island of Kalymnos in the southeastern Aegean Sea. It was there he fell in love with the flavors of his native country and decided to attend culinary school. He later went on to work at a few five-star hotels in Greece, but the white-tablecloth world didn’t appeal to him. “I did it, but I didn’t have a real passion,” he says. What he did have a passion for was the small, common eateries of popular Greek culture. “They call them souvlatzidika. It’s like a burger place in the states,” he says. But Greece had many such places and few opportunities for the young chef to strike out on his own. “The situation was very difficult over there, so I decided to move back to the U.S. and do what I have to,” he says.
Together with his cousin Dimitri, the soon-to-be Chef Dimitri worked in the U.S. as a bridge painter. But the job took both Dimitris away from their families, including Nikoletta, for months at a time. So when Nikoletta’s mother introduced the cousins to friends who were planning to build in Morgantown, near Anna’s home in Pittsburgh, a light bulb blinked on. “We were eating Thanksgiving at Anna’s house and she told us they were building these student apartments and underneath would be rental spaces. She said, ‘You guys should do a Greek place there’,” Chef Dimitri says. “My cousin looked at me and I looked at him. Then I told him, ‘Don’t worry about anything. I know what we’re going to do.’”
Together the Dimitris and Nikoletta saved money and, with the help of Anna—a fourth co-owner of the business—opened The Greeks in 2014 with a full menu of flavorful dishes. From gyros stuffed with meats, fries, and creamy sauces like or terokafteri, a spicy cheese, as well as staples of Greek cuisine like pastitsio, a baked dish similar to lasagna, this little diner has brought authentic Greek cuisine to Morgantown’s Sunnyside neighborhood in a whole new way. And don’t forget dessert. Chef Dimitri makes a baklava so light and sweet, stuffed with nuts and drizzled with the famous thyme honey of Kalymnos, even his mother, Anastasia, a cook in her own right, gushes about it. “I taught him how to make it. But now his is better than mine,” she says.
Not only are the staples of modern college dining flying out the door—the gyros, the salads, and the fresh-made hummus served with warm pita bread—but the less well-known, at least among Americans, flavors of Greek culture are gaining popularity as well. Nikoletta says the moussaka, a baked casserole-type dish, as well as the pastitsio, spanakopita, and even homemade rice pudding have more fans among the student population every day. “There are still people in Morgantown who really don’t know what Greek cuisine is,” Chef Dimitri says. “But eventually they give us a shot. And they always come back.”
Having celebrated their restaurant’s one-year anniversary in September 2015, the Dimitris and their families are working hard to keep momentum going. The cousins work seven days a week. They open each morning at 11 a.m. and serve food until 10 p.m. on weekdays and as late as 1 a.m. on weekends. “It isn’t easy. If it weren’t for Dimitri and me working here every day, we wouldn’t have made it,” the chef says.
They want to become an even bigger part of the community by attending events like the West Virginia Wine & Jazz Festival held each September outside Morgantown. They’ve also been in talks with Pierpont Community & Technical College in Fairmont to bring culinary students into the restaurant to work and learn about Greek cuisine, and they have a new agreement with WVU to allow students to purchase meals at The Greeks using their student IDs. “I like to see the students come in and learn something about a new culture. It reminds me of my time in culinary school,” Chef Dimitri says.
From sister Savvina, who’s happy to jump behind the counter and make crepes, to Nikoletta doing paperwork and handling phones, to Anna, who comes down from Pittsburgh to help out every weekend, to Anastasia, who travels to Kalymnos to gather herbs from the mountains for tea and to purchase honey for baklava, everyone is putting heart and soul into the effort. “My pay is getting to see the boys doing better and better in their lives,” Anastasia says proudly. “That’s all we want.”
WRITTEN BY MIKENNA PIEROTTI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CARLA WITT FORD