NEW YORK CITY — Each spring, when Greek Orthodox Easter draws near, I'm reminded why my family has lovingly dubbed it "Eat-ster."
The reason: food — lots and lots of it — is at the center of any Greek Easter fete. And a whole lamb, slathered with oil and herbs, roasted for hours on a spit, is the traditional star of the meal.
The religion's most important holiday and biggest celebration falls a little later than usual this year, on May 5.
But Greek New Yorkers say the holiday, with its traditional treats and revelry, is well worth the wait.
Some observant Greek Orthodox spend the 40 days before the holiday restricting staples of their diet — like meat, dairy, wine and oil — for a Great Lent fast, so Easter (or “Pascha”) is like a no-holds-barred way to make up for lost calories.
“Easter is an absolute joyous time. It’s about love, coming together with family and friends,” said Maria Loi, the executive chef of upscale Upper West Side Greek eatery Loi. “And for Greeks, good food is love.”
Good Easter food is also work. Preparation for the big day often starts several days before, during what Greeks consider Holy Week.
If you’re a home cook, the pre-Easter time is used to bake the two staple Easter desserts: vanilla butter cookies called koulouria that are formed into little twists or wreaths, and the holiday’s traditional sweet bread tsoureki, a large loaf that’s made from braided strands of dough.
Tsoureki is akin to challah bread, but it has the added kick of a highly aromatic Greek spice called mahlepi, which is made from the ground seeds of wild cherry trees. Many Greeks also use mastiha, a unique Greek flavoring that comes from the resin of a tree that only grows on the Greek island of Chios, for the bread. Mastiha is sweet, and a little pine-tree tasting.
“Every single Greek home has at least one tsoureki for Easter — bread is the staff of life, and Easter is about rebirth, a new spring beginning” said Lili Fable, an owner of beloved Poseidon Bakery, a Hell’s Kitchen Greek storefront that’s been in her husband’s family for five generations. “Each family has their own twist on the bread, but of course, we think ours is the best.”
The labor-intensive baking process, said Fable, 74, involves several goes at kneading the bread, and letting it rise, then kneading it again, before finally brushing it with egg wash, sprinkling it with sesame seeds and throwing it in the oven. But Fable, who runs the shop with one of her sons, Peter, who's also the main tsoureki baker, said making the bread, and most Greek food, is really a labor of love.
“It’s not easy," Fable said, "but nothing really good ever is."
The Fables, who live above their small shop at 44th Street and Ninth Avenue, were in the midst of baking hundreds of tsourekis for Easter last week, and they will ship several hundred of them all across the country.
“People grew up eating our tsoureki," Fable said. "Eating ours is another tradition for them.”
Another less tiring, but potentially messier, preparation for Easter is dyeing a whole bunch of hard-boiled eggs red, a color that is supposed to symbolize Jesus' blood.
The eggs are placed on the tsoureki, and generally snacked on, but they’re also the centerpiece of a traditional egg-cracking game. On Easter, everyone grabs a hard-boiled egg and an opponent. They each take a turn at smacking the ends of their egg together, hoping at least one side of the egg remains uncracked. Whoever's egg remains mostly unscathed becomes the winner of the egg battle — which symbolizes Jesus breaking through his tomb — and is said to have good luck for the year.
Egg-cracking, and eating, is also one of the first things people do when they finally chow down on Easter.
For many Greeks, that first tasty bite of fast-breaking food happens during the early hours of Sunday morning, right after a candle-filled Saturday night Mass. At the stroke of midnight, bells will ring in every Greek Orthodox church as the priests lead parishioners, who are holding newly lit candles, outside. Many Greeks never actually enter the church — they wait for the priest and the procession to head outdoors, where they’ll have their own candles lit and greet friends and family with “Christos anesti,” which means “Christ has risen.”
“It’s really a beautiful ceremony to be apart of,” says Georgia Giannakou, a native of Greece and longtime Astoria resident. “You pass the light, you kiss your friends, and it feels like the beginning of a celebration.”
In Astoria, where you can watch throngs of candle-holding Greeks on the streets after midnight, they also shoot off fireworks. Greeks try to keep the flame going until they at least get home, to bring the fire into their houses for good luck.
Then comes the food.
After midnight, Greeks finally break bread with tsoureki, chomp on the eggs and traditionally have a special lemony Easter soup — which is made from the heart, liver and other innards of lamb — called magirista.
“Greeks don’t want to waste a thing — that’s the significance of the soup,” says Elena Papageorgiou, a manager of Zenon Taverna, her family owned Greek-Cypriot restaurant in Astoria. "When they say they eat the whole lamb, they really eat the whole lamb."
Her popular, homey eatery, which is actually closed on Easter day — the one day a year it’s shuttered — is offering a traditional after-midnight meal, for $25 a person, that runs until the early morning hours.
Several other restaurants across the city, like upscale Midtown eatery Estiatoria Milos, are also having special after-midnight Saturday Greek Easter meals. Milos will even be spit-roasting more than 50 lambs outside of its West 55th Street restaurant on Saturday afternoon to prepare for a $97-a-person, three-course feast that night. Seatings start at 11:45 p.m., and the restaurant closes at 4 a.m.
While an after-church home meal usually doesn’t last until 4 a.m., Greeks do stay up late. Still, many are awake early in the morning to start cooking their lambs on outdoor spits.
My dad’s own recipe for a succulent, 25-pound lamb — and we consider him an expert — calls for about five hours of slow-roasting over a fire. There’s also the twice-hourly slathering of an oil, lemon and oregano mixture on the rotating lamb.
Along with the spinning lamb, the animal's innards are also separately fired up on Easter day. This time, instead of in soup, the liver, heart and other organ meat are wrapped in cleaned lamb intestines and thrown on the grill or rotisserie for a traditional Easter dish called kokoretsi.
Aside from the staple lamb and kokoretsi, the eggs and traditional sweets, the Easter menu really depends on your family. A variety of other classic Greek foods, such as lemon-roasted potatoes, spinach and cheese pies, a Greek-style lasagna called pastitio, along with a host of other grilled meats and vegetables, salads and spreads, cheeses, breads — and of course wine and ouzo — often round out the meal.
“It’s the type of day that can start at 10 a.m as you’re roasting the lamb, grilling, eating, cooking and slowly 60 people show up in your backyard,” said Peter Lekkas, who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a tight-knit Greek community. He also owns favorite local Greek restaurant Elia.
“And then, you know, the day ends when the last guy tips over,” he said. “It’s a good day.”
Here's where to go to celebrate — and eat — like a Greek on May 5:
208 W. 70th St.
Upscale, expansive Greek eatery Loi promises a real Greek feast on Easter day. Charismatic executive chef and owner Maria Loi will be spit-roasting more than 50 lambs outside of her restaurant early Sunday for the $75 meal. “I feel like half of Manhattan came last year, it was great, in the real spirit of Easter,” Loi said. On the menu is the lamb, basted in olive oil and a blend of herbs, as well as the traditional lamb offal soup, magiritsa. Diners also have a choice of grilled wild salmon or chicken, as well as a different, organ-less, lemony Greek soup, avgolemeno. A crisp green salad or spinach pie starts your meal, and an assortment of Greek desserts for the table, including baklava, finishes off the fete. Loi also includes a glass of Greek wine for each diner, and sends off full customers with a goody bag of the traditional red eggs, as well as koulouria, the Easter dessert biscuits. “I want people to feel like they are in my home in Greece, and really enjoy the whole atmosphere,” Loi said.
25 W. 55th St.
212-245-7400 Lambs will be roasting on the street outside of this Midtown favorite on Saturday afternoon for their after-midnight Easter celebration. The $97 prix-fixe meal will also be jazzed up with live Greek music.
871 Seventh Ave.
212-582-7500 Popular, refined Greek eatery Molyvos is serving a $65 prix fixe Greek Easter menu that has all the delicious trappings of the day. The meal starts with a choice of sautéed sweetbreads or a wild greens pie with scallions, mint and feta wrapped in crispy feta. Up next is the staple magiritsa soup, followed by a Greek green salad with spring onions, dill and lemon vinaigrette. Baby lamb, slow-roasted in the oven, is the star of the meal. The main dish comes with fava beans, ramps and artichoke fricassee. Classic Greek desert galaktoboureko, a custard wrapped in phyllo, or homemade tsoureki finishes off the feast. The special Easter meal will be served from noon to 11 p.m. Sunday, and Molyvos’ regular menu is also available.
128 E. 7th St. 212-473-0220
This cozy East Village eatery will serve a special after-church Easter meal late Saturday night that features an oven-roasted lamb shank, the ever-popular magiritsa soup and its own custardy desert, as well as tsoureki, for $50. Pylos' regular menu will be served on Easter day.
629 Ninth Ave.
The fifth-generation mom-and-pop store churns out hundreds of delicious, handmade traditional Easter breads, called tsoureki, in various sizes. The charming little shop also has a host of other Greek baked goods.
1090 Amsterdam Ave.
A smaller cafe outpost of a large, beloved bakery in Astoria, this sweet shop and eatery near Columbia University features a variety of Greek and other desserts. The store is also offering a free tsoureki bread with any online order of $50 or more through May 5.
Astoria remains a stronghold for Greek culture and food in the city. The neighborhood is populated with many Greek restaurants and bakeries, but here are a few staples, places where Greeks travel from all over the city to taste all the trappings of Easter.
34-10 31st Ave.
23-18 31st St.
23-18 31st St.
25-56 31st St.
Bay Ridge has for years been home to a tight-knit Greek community. It makes sense, then, that Brooklyn's go-to Greek shops are mostly in the neighborhood.
8611 Third Ave.
Considered one of the best Greek restaurants in Brooklyn, this 16-year-old Bay Ridge eatery will have its regular menu on Easter, as well as a special oven-roasted lamb dish with lemon potatoes and artichokes, and the popular magiritsa soup.
Bay Ridge Bakery
7805 Fifth Ave.
This popular shop, run by a Greek family, bakes an array of cakes, cookies and other Greek and Italian sweets. Owner and baker Nick Nikolopoulos said they make hundreds and hundreds of tsoureki breads, and other desserts, for the holiday season.
A & S Deli and Meat Market
7918 5th Ave.
If you need a whole lamb, or other tasty cuts of meat, this Greek butcher shop in Bay Ridge is the place to go.
9606 3rd Ave.
For a variety of Greek ingredients, specialty goods, as well as a host of prepared Greek foods, the market, opened last year, is a new go-to spot in Brooklyn.