You’ll see stories by Bob Batz Jr. on the walls of restaurants and other places around the city. He started writing for The Pittsburgh Press in 1986 and has worked at the Post-Gazette since 1993. Until recently he was the PG’s longtime food editor. He’s now working on other initiatives at the paper, but keeping a hand in food and drinks coverage, including writing about craft beer. He’s also the vice president of the Association of Food Journalists.
His best meal last week?
I didn’t find my best meal last week. It found me.
On Tuesday evening, one of the prettiest of the summer so far, I brought my wife and son Downtown to see the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix car show on the Clemente Bridge. We figured we’d get dinner after, somewhere.
We were strolling up Sixth Street when, in front of Christos’ Mediterranean Grille, we saw owner Christos Melacrinos, whom we hadn’t seen for – geez, years. He crossed the street to hug us.
“Come in for some hummus,” he said with a Greek accent that’s still strong 50 years after he left his native Ikaria. I said we would come back after we checked out the cars.
“I like him,” said our almost-8-year-old son. “I want to try his food!”
And so after oohing and ahhing at all the cars, we sat down at a tiny table outside of Christos’ and I opened a screw-top bottle of red I’d retrieved from our car. Christos brought out a plate of warm, crispy pita and a plate of hummus, which my son devoured with so much gusto that he even put down my wife’s iPhone.
We told him, “Wait ‘til you try the chicken-lemon soup.”
Christos brought him a cup of that, and a cup of lentil soup for my wife, and more pita. He brought Greek salads, topped with pieces of melon and strawberries and grapes as well as feta. He brought wedges of lemon potatoes.
My son said, “This is the best Greek food I’ve had in my life.”
In between him serving other customers, we caught up with Christos, who was working at this Greek landmark when it was Suzie’s for almost two decades before he bought it in 1996. It’s one of those restaurants that just keeps going, in great part because Christos does. I told him he hasn’t changed nearly as much as Downtown’s dining scene.
He and I go back to the mid-1990s, when I wrote one of my favorite stories of my journalism career—one about how Christos took in a homeless man who had been living in the alley behind the restaurant. Just that day I’d found a copy of it as I cleaned out for the move this week to the new Post-Gazette newsroom on the North Side. Christos still has that story up in the restaurant, the walls of which are covered with family photos.
He brought out a photo of one of his granddaughters and asked our son if he would like to marry her. Our son shook his head no, but with a big smile.
Christos brought him a plate of vegetable pasta, and my wife a plate of stifatho, beef cubes and onions stewed in a tomato-wine sauce. He already was out of the olive oil-and-lemon-roasted chicken, so he brought me salmon topped with spinach and red pepper, served with rice and saucy green beans.
Christos grew up on simple, healthful food like this on the Aegean island of Ikaria, which recently has become famous as a place “where people forget to die.” That’s part the subtitle of the new “Ikaria” cookbook by Diane Kochilas, whom Christos says is one of the speakers at this September’s national convention here of the Pan-Icarian Brotherhood of America. I told him to have his wife send me some information.
It was a beautiful night. We were too stuffed to eat dessert, but not too stuffed to order it to go: a rice pudding and a vanilla cake with honey, custard and whipped cream that Christos has named in honor of someone on whose yacht he used to cook: “Onassis Cake.”
We agreed it was wonderful to have reconnected.
“Maybe I come home with you?” Christos asked.
“Sure,” I said, and we gave him a ride to his house in Brookline.