Food has always been significant for the Giannakas family — the folks behind the Astoria Greek eatery Ovelia, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.
“For us growing up, sitting and eating together was really important, and we all took turns messing around with recipes,” Chris Giannakas said. “The kitchen was really important to the family.”
But it wasn’t until a decade ago that they came together to share family recipes at a restaurant in the neighborhood they’d called home since Chris Giannakas was a baby.
“After years of us doing our own thing—my brother was a scientist, I was in law and politics, my father was semi-retired—I quit what I was doing and I went to Greece to spend a few months there,” Giannakas said. “I came back and decided that I wanted to do a small plates kind of thing with a bar.” The idea was to have modern fare based in traditional Greek food.
Once he found a location, Giannakas realized that the neighborhood was lacking a full sit-down eatery, so he decided to move forward with a full restaurant.
The eatery quickly became a family business: his father came on board; his mother would hang out and cook, and her items made it onto the menu; and his brother Peter took the lead on creating a brunch menu.
“[Peter] really started falling in love with the kitchen and started moving away from the lab and doing science, and he put his skills toward what he was doing in the kitchen,” Giannakas said. Peter Giannakas even got onto Season 3 of the popular Food Network competition reality series “Chopped.”
Peter Giannakas has begun to take inspiration from his family history for Ovelia’s cuisine.
“Pete recently started doing research into what my grandparents were doing with their cuisine,” Giannakas said. “They came from Asia Minor, and they ended up moving to the [Greek] islands and onto the mainland, Athens, and my parents were born there. My mom grew up eating a certain type of Greek food that was inspired by Asia Minor.” So Peter started bringing those flavors into the menu.
On the brunch menu, for example, diners will find “Yiayia’s Omelet.” Yiayia is the Greek word for grandma, and the omelet was given that name because Chris and Peter’s grandmother used to make it for them.
If you visit Ovelia, make sure to taste the Kaimaki vintage ice cream made with salepi and mastiha and served with sour cherry preserves. The Ovelia team imported the ingredients and came up with the recipe, and Astoria ice cream shop Sweet Janes makes it for the restaurant.
The Monastiraki Bifteki (ground lamb, beef and pork kebabs) was named after an area in Athens where Giannakas’ parents used to go on dates before they got married. Chris and Peter’s parents would bring them there when the family visited Greece.
Lahmatzoun, a dish that’s really popular in Turkey and Armenia, is also one to try, Giannakas said. It’s made with flat bread, minced lamb, pork, beef, onions and parsley.
“With the Greek cuisine, pretty much everything that you serve, you’re processing at the restaurant. You can’t go buy certain things; it’s not here. So you have to think about it from scratch. Where do you procure the ingredients, and what do you do with them?”
Giannakas has seen the way Astoria has transformed over the years, beginning when he was a child and his father had a souvlaki stand in Astoria Park on summer weekends.
“The neighborhood’s changed a lot since we started [Ovelia], and we’ve grown and changed with the neighborhood,” he said. “It keeps us on our toes with what we’re doing and we’ve revisited what we’re doing with the restaurant. It’s been an interesting trip, and we’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Giannakas said that Ovelia has become a hangout for locals and immigrants from Greece.
“It’d be a spot where they’d come and they’d meet other people, and obviously we’d help wherever we could, whether it be work or trying to get them a place to stay, and in a way, you serve the community in that respect.”
At Ovelia, Giannakas’ parents and Peter Giannakas “do the kitchen stuff,” Giannakas said, while he works with the front of the house and the bar. He also did the restaurant’s interior design, graphics, logos and marketing. “And I’m a plumber and electrician and [fix] everything else that breaks in that restaurant; that’s what happens when you’re a small business,” he added.
“But it’s funny because everyone has a say in everything, so it’s never really a unilateral decision,” Giannakas said. “It’s always kind of like a family situation.”
34-01 30th Ave., Astoria