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Astoria's Feta Cheese Bars Put Mediterranean Culture on Display

ASTORIA — Whether you want to sprinkle it over a salad or bake it in some spanakopita, the markets and food stores of Astoria offer plenty of options when it comes to finding feta — the tangy, crumbly cheese that is featured prominently in Greek and other cuisines.

The neighborhood is home to a number of shops that sell blocks of the salty white cheese behind glass display cases, while a staff of white-aproned workers are ready to help customers find the perfect pick.

"You know how many kinds of feta exist? Thousands. Every place you go in Greece, they make feta," said George Vlaseros, who works at Euro Market at 30-42 31st St., which sells more than 10 different kinds of the cheese.

Shoppers flock to the heavily Greek neighborhood from all over the tri-state region, he said, for a selection of feta that can't be rivaled anywhere else.

"In Astoria, you have a lot of Greeks," he explained, "and the Greeks, they want feta."

Traditional Greek feta and feta from other European countries is made from either whole sheep's milk or a sheep and goat's milk blend, which is ripened then cured in brine for at least two months. High-quality sheep feta can cost as much as $9 or $10 a pound, Vlaseros said, and is typically used as a table cheese to munch on with wine or to toss in a salad.

Cheaper domestic feta, often made with cow's milk, can cost as little as $2 a pound and is popular for use in baked dishes.

"When you make cheese pies and stuff like this, you buy the cheaper feta," Vlaseros said. "It's cow feta and it's hard, so when you cook with that and it bakes, it doesn’t melt so much."

At Titan Foods, a specialty market on 31st Street that's revered in the neighborhood as a go-to spot for Greek goods, George Boskinis works the feta counter, where shoppers can choose from over a dozen kinds of the cheese. These include domestic cow feta, plus imports from Bulgaria, France and a number from Greece, named after the regions where they're produced.

By far the most popular Greek feta is Dondonis, he said, which hails from the country's northwestern region, costs $10.99 a pound, and is known for its rich and creamy flavor.

Feta also differs in taste depending on the container it was aged in — barrel, basket or tin. Boskinis insists great feta can come from all three, but that many shoppers opt for barrel-aged feta, which is considered a higher-quality cheese. 

Boskinis recommends the Greek Arahova feta.

"It's creamy and sharp, and it comes from a barrel, so it tastes different every time," he noted.

Meg Cotner, an Astoria blogger and author of "Food Lover's Guide to Queens," explained that the key to finding the right feta is to sample the goods. At most Astoria speciality markets, the workers are more than happy to slice off chunks of the cheese for customers to taste.

"It's worth trying various kinds," she said.

The Best Feta Spots in Astoria:

Titan Foods, 25-56 31st St.
This well-known specialty supermarket is recognizable to passersby for its Greek flags hanging out front. In addition to a variety of feta, Titan carries a number of Greek imports, from olives to dried meats to vinegar, and has a separate bakery section for pastries and breads.

Mediterranean Foods, 30-12 34th St. and 23-18 31st St.
With two Astoria locations, Mediterranean Foods is known for its feta selection, as well as aisles of other European food offerings, like yogurts, pita bread and a self-serve olive bar.

Euro Market, 30-42 31st St.
Euro Market has plenty of feta, but doesn't limit itself to Greek items. This specialty store carries imports from all over Europe and is known in particular for its huge selection of beers.

Parrot Coffee, 31-12 Ditmars Blvd.
With two other shops in Sunnyside and Ridgewood, Parrot's Astoria location is more bodega in size than supermarket, but it still fits plenty of items in its narrow location. In addition to a large meat and cheese counter, the shop has a sizable olive bar, huge selection of dried fruits and nuts, plus bags and bags of whole coffee beans to purchase by the pound.