Four years ago, at age 48, Chris Panagiotopoulos hit a crossroads in his career. He had already logged 14 years as a partner in the Mamma Lucia location in Bethesda, but he noticed that management had, increasingly, stopped entertaining his ideas.
After devoting so much of his adult life to the restaurant industry, he knew he still had plenty to offer. But he also suspected that if he wanted to prove it, he would need to open his own place. In February 2013, not long after Valentine’s Day, Panagiotopoulos walked out on Mamma, with this crazy, romantic notion of launching a catering business. He had no professional culinary training and no real cooking experience, aside from Sunday meals at home.
Working out of his house in Clarksburg, Md., Panagiotopoulos whipped up lunches for office workers and spreads for small parties, essentially taking any business that he could drum up with a taste test or via word of mouth. Business was steady enough that he decided in 2015 to take up his sister-in-law Katerina Georgallas’s proposal to share a small retail spot in Kensington: Her Baklava Couture bakery, a favorite at farmers markets, would hold down one side, and his Talia’s Cuzina the other. It’s like a co-working space, but for Greek and Italian fare.
Named after his 12-year-old daughter, Talia’s is not a restaurant but a counter-service takeout. It has only two tables, both outside, vulnerable to the whims of the weather. There are only a handful of parking spaces dedicated to the shop, and the surrounding businesses appear to protect their available concrete with a dictatorial fervor: The 24-hour towing signs plastered everywhere threaten to turn your bargain takeout meal into a costly extended afternoon (although Panagiotopoulos says his neighbors happily accommodate his customers). Once parked, you’ll probably have to stand around the interior of Talia’s, staring into space, or at your phone, as Panagiotopoulos prepares your order. The inconvenience can be palpable.
But once you pop the lid on your “famous” chicken pesto sandwich, all the hassles will recede from memory, replaced with an all-consuming desire. The slices of crusty ciabatta are stained with pesto, just enough to tease your nostrils with garlic, olive oil and the faint minty sweetness of basil. The chicken breasts are pounded exquisitely thin, each one browned and charred around the edges. The fresh lettuces scattered atop the chicken shimmer with oil. A kind of lust, this electric anticipation right before consumption, is one of the sandwich’s many pleasures.
Inside Panagiotopoulos’s chest there beats an Old World heart, which takes comfort in the painstaking preparations necessary to produce the juicy, full-flavored meats in his sandwiches, salads, pastas and homemade sauces. Panagiotopoulos rubs a boneless leg of lamb with lemon, olive oil and spices before roasting the meat for seven hours. He marinates those famous chicken breasts for 48 hours in olive oil, lemon and black pepper. He braises his own pork shoulders. He even bakes his own potato chips, drizzling them with olive oil to mimic their deep-fried cousins.
With that said, one of my favorite ingredients at Talia’s isn’t prepared in-house. The beef meatballs, these melt-in-your-mouth specimens, arrive fresh twice a week from Saval Foodservice. Before embedding the globes in a tangle of spaghetti, Panagiotopoulos marinates them in, among other things, ouzo, that Greek licorice stick of a spirit that divides people faster than U.S. politics. Those meatballs — fork-tender, fragrant, unforgettable — may force you to rethink your relationship with ouzo.
Panagiotopoulos doesn’t stand on tradition at Talia’s. He takes a freewheeling, fungible approach to his dishes. His Caprese sandwich assumes a bitter persona, substituting sauteed broccoli and Brussels sprouts for the basil. It’s a bite that stands on the border between genius and lunacy, and the dissonance between the expected and the delivered flavors is both confrontational and captivating. This kind of exploratory cooking can, on occasion, bottom out, as with Panagiotopoulos’s Greek melt, whose horseradish aioli grates against the milky mozzarella and succulent pork.
Sometimes I don’t know whether to salute or slug Roy Choi for all the fusion tacos he has inspired in the decade since he rolled out Kogi, his Korean barbecue taco truck in Los Angeles. Washington’s streets are now littered with inferior interpretations of Choi’s best work. For his part, Panagiotopoulos has developed a Greek variation on hybrid tacos, a trio of mini corn tortillas stacked with shredded pork, red onions, tzatziki and dill. They’re so fresh, simple and satisfying that I want to plant a wet one on Choi’s cheek for opening this Pandora’s box of fusion tacos.
In a similar vein, Panagiotopoulos has renewed my faith in sliders, a snack that too often conceals a little rubber ball of overcooked beef. His potato-bun sliders are stuffed with that slow-roasted lamb, paired with goat cheese and strips of roasted red pepper. These sliders will disappear faster than coins into a slot machine. In terms of sheer seduction, the lamb rivals Panagiotopoulos’s marinated-and-grilled chicken, which delivers in every dish that features it, whether Talia’s penne with rosé sauce or the roasted chicken salad, available in a to-go container.
Speaking of prepared foods to go, here is one way to kill time while waiting on your meal: Get a container of kafteri, this oh-so-poundable spread of spicy feta. One afternoon, I used my fingers to dig into that container while Panagiotopoulos prepared my lunch. Of course, you could take a more dignified approach: You could buy some pita bread from the bakery, located just to your left. While you’re at it, you might as well order a few squares of baklava for dessert. Everything’s right there at your fingertips at this one-stop spot for good Mediterranean cooking.
10560 Metropolitan Ave., Kensington, Md., 240-483-7285, taliascuzina.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Prices: $7.50 to $14 for salads, sandwiches and pasta.