So your wallet isn't thick enough to finance an odyssey to the sun-drenched Aegean, but you still crave honey-drenched baklava and an evening of bouzouki music. Don't lose heart. On your next journey to the Big Apple, take the subway from Manhattan to Astoria, Queens, just across the East River.
Picturesque white-washed houses and Homer's wine-dark sea may be missing, but this neighborhood in the northwestern corner of Queens is as close as you can get to Greece on this side of the Atlantic.
Stepping off the elevated subway at the Ditmars Boulevard stop -- the last on the RR line -- it is easy to forget that Manhattan is a mere 20 minutes away. The aromas of spit-roasted lamb, grilled souvlaki, rich olive oil, pungent feta cheese and bitter Greek coffee fill the air.
Greek is spoken by nearly everyone, even by the attendant at the subway token booth. Greek graffiti dot the station's walls, and posters with Greek lettering advertise upcoming concerts. On the street, newsstands sell mostly Greek publications, and in the distance the faint drone of bouzouki music can be heard.
Signs on 31st Street -- Astoria's main thoroughfare, which runs directly beneath the subway tracks -- read as if they could be in Athens: Corfou Center, Sevastakis Shoes, Socrates Realty, Lefkos Pirgos Pastry Shop and Taverna Vraka. Even the local movie house features Greek films on its marquee.
Only a very American McDonald's in the middle of the block hints at Astoria's true locale.
With an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 Greek and Cypriot immigrants and Americans of Greek descent living here, Astoria is home to one of the largest Greek communities outside Greece. It is a stable neighborhood of two-family attached row houses, tree-lined streets and well-kept apartment buildings.
But unlike the city's more renowned ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown or Little Italy, Astoria is unspoiled by touristy lures. Astoria's restaurants, cafe's and shops are more apt to be frequented by local residents and Greeks from the metropolitan area than tourists.
Touches of Italy also sprinkle this section of Queens, which was once a neighborhood of Italian immigrants. But as Mayor Edward I. Koch put it last March at the city's annual Greek Independence Day parade, "Astoria without the Greek community would not be Astoria."
Roughly bordered by four main streets -- Ditmars Boulevard to the north, Broadway to the south, 31st Street to the west and Steinway Street to the east -- Astoria is a bustle of activity. As in most Greek towns, you will find people walking the streets and talking at most any hour.
Every Sunday, families -- from grandmothers dressed in traditional black to toddlers -- head to one of the 11 Greek Orthodox churches in the area. The largest is the 50-year-old St. Demitrios with its huge Byzantine dome and its adjacent parochial school, the first Greek American high school in the nation.
But on warm summer evenings, people stroll casually up and down the neighborhood's safe streets, going nowhere in particular, just taking a volta (a walk), as they would around their village square back in Greece. Others sit on their stoops or pull out chairs to watch the passers-by.
Under the elevated subway tracks on 31st Street, small groups sit around tables on the sidewalk in front of the Continental Souvlaki Meat Center, munching on the neighborhood specialty: souvlaki, grilled chunks of lamb or pork marinated in lemon juice and sprinkled with oregano. Despite the sometimes deafening roar of the train overhead, they engage in what is perhaps every Greek's favorite pastime -- talking. The train rumbles as it passes, but the conversation never stops. It only gets louder. Hands wave, fingers jab the air and fists slam on tables for emphasis.
Next door at the Lefkos Pirgos Zaharoplasteion, a pastry shop named after a white castle in the northeastern town of Thessaloni'ki, the scene is the same with one classic exception. Here, as befits traditional cafe's in small Greek villages, the patrons are mostly male, and the topic of conversation is more than likely politics or soccer. Newspapers -- either Proini or the Ethnikos Kyrix, two papers published here, or any one of a dozen newspapers shipped by air to New York daily from Athens -- are spread before them as they sip thick Greek coffee from small demitasse cups.
At the other end of the block closer to Ditmars Boulevard is the Hilton Pastry Shop, a more modern two-tiered establishment with a less homogenous crowd. On the ground level, a glass case displays dozens of delectable pastries from baklava (a strudel honey-soaked pastry stuffed with walnuts) and kourabiedes (sugar-dusted almond cookies) to kataifi (shredded wheat filled with honey and nuts) and galaktoboureko (a creamy custard-filled pastry smothered with honey). Upstairs, amid mirrors and green plants, coffee drinkers and nibblers gaze through large glass windows at the busy life of 31st Street below.
On any given Saturday, they are likely to watch shoppers flood the street, scurrying from shop to shop to buy the latest record albums by such popular artists as Yiannis Parios or Giorgos Dalaras or traditional paraphernalia for Orthodox weddings or christenings -- floral wreaths for the bride's and groom's heads, special candles for the ceremony or koufeta, candied almonds, to be given to guests.
Others with more culinary interests carry armloads of imported delicacies: creamy feta cheese made from goat's milk, sharply salted halloumi cheese from Cyprus, sun-baked black olives, spicy coriander-laced sausage, a zesty dried beef called pastourma, tender lamb, hearty homemade yogurt or fragrant oregano. Just about anything a discriminating Greek palate desires.
Nearly every block has its own specialty shops: Kalamata Food Imports at 38-01 Ditmars Blvd. or Mediterranean Foods at 33-20 30th Ave., or Kyriakos Grocery, 29-29 23rd Ave., a quaint little shop that could easily be at home on any Aegean isle.
Huge wheels of cheese and dozens of varieties of olives are stored in large wooden barrels, while sacks of dried beans and spices line the store's narrow walls, and gallons of olive oil imported from Greece, Italy and Spain fill every other imaginable corner. Brikia, the long-handled saucepans used to make Greek coffee, hang gingerly from the shelves up above.
At Matthew Vrasidas' Hunter of the Sea fish market on 31st Street, piles of barbounia (red mullet), tsipoures (porgies) and marides (smelts) as well as octopus and squid are neatly displayed on mounds of chopped ice. And further north on Ditmars Boulevard at the K and T Meat Market, whole lambs for spit-roasting hang from hooks.
You do not have to know how to prepare these Greek specialties, however, in order to sample them. Astoria is chock full of restaurants and taverns, where you can savor mouthwatering, home-cooked fare at reasonable prices.
Turning west from 31st Street on 23rd Avenue, you can choose between Elpis, a small bright cafe' featuring home-style cooking prepared by Greek-born Sofia Orkopoulos, or Klimataria, a casual restaurant run by Cypriot-born Rodys Andreou, where you can find Cypriot delicacies like grilled halloumi or seftalies, spicy meat-filled sausages served with warm pita bread. On a recent evening, as we nibbled on chunks of octopus smothered in olive oil and garnished with parsley, a group of women chattered in Greek next to us and a group of young teen-agers chain-smoked cigarettes behind us. The entire meal including appetizers cost us less than $10 apiece.
Roumeli, a warm, cozy restaurant decorated with lots of plants, paintings and wood accents, is located at the other end of Astoria at 33-04 Broadway. Mezedakia (appetizers) are the owner Haroula Spilios' pride and joy. A mixed platter includes taramasalata (a salad made from carp roe), skordalia (a garlic-laced potato dip), tzatziki (yogurt mixed with cucumber and garlic). Try these tantalizing treats with a glass of ouzo, a licorice-flavored aperitif with a kick. The house specialties: koukouretsi, a savory blend of chopped lamb innards, and bekri meze, a delicious mixture of grilled liver and sweetbreads seasoned with red wine.
For a bit more elegant dining accompanied by soft Greek music, visit Taverna Vraka at 23-15 31st St., a gracious and romantic restaurant specializing in Cypriot cuisine. Just about any dish ordered here is carefully prepared, although the grilled porgy served with lots of lemon juice, olive oil and oregano is especially tasty. But it is Seraphim Lazos' soft serenades on his guitar that make this restaurant special.
After 11 p.m. you may want to venture to the area's nightclubs, known as the bouzoukia, where amplified Greek mandolin-like instruments rule the night. Visit the Grecian Cave at 31-11 Broadway just off 31st Street and watch men take turns dancing the zembikiko, the solo dance that made Zorba famous. Don't be alarmed if someone throws a red carnation or breaks a plate or two; it's all part of the fun.
If you want to end your Grecian adventure on a mellow note, go to Akroama, an intimate club at 29-35 Newton Ave. In an atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of Greenwich Village, talented Evangelos Fampas on guitar, singer Gregory Maninakis and three others perform folk songs, ballads and popular tunes until 3 in the morning. On Thursdays and Fridays, the program consists only of rembetiko music, a form of blues that flourished in Greece during the l920s in underground hashish dens and formed the root of what is known today as popular Greek bouzouki music. Admission is $5 on weekends, $3 on weekdays.
While Astoria may not be a picture-perfect copy of Ithaca, Odysseus' birthplace, he certainly would have felt at home here, and so will most philhellenes.