Just as Jackson Heights has long been associated with South Asian and Indian cuisine Astoria is renowned for its Greek tavernas, but it’s also home to another cuisine that’s often confused with Greek. I speak of Cypriot cuisine, a product of a nation that sits at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia. And the best place to enjoy this wonderful style of cooking which bears Greek, Sicilian and Middle Eastern influences is Zenon Taverna. Which is precisely why the boys from Queens Dinner Club and I chose it for this month’s dinner on 10/26. To find out when tickets go on sale, be sure to watch our Facebook page.
“Everyone thinks we’re a European country, but we’re actually part of Asia,” said Elena, daughter of Zenon Taverna’s founder Stelios Papageorgiou. “We’re just below Turkey and right above Egypt.”
Many people conflate Cypriot and Greek cuisine, but Elena is quick to point out they are quite different. One of the main differences is the prevalence of pork. “We use pork for everything,” she said. “The reason for it is we’re a small island and pigs are easier to raise.”
QDC is proud to feature several off-menu pork dishes at this month’s dinner. Lunza kokalo, Cypriot style smoked pork ribs marinated in red wine, rubbed with crushed coriander are then char-grilled. In Cyprus lunza is traditionally eaten with grilled halloumi, a sheep’s milk cheese. “It’s our version of ham and cheese,” Elena says with a smile. “The flavor of the coriander and the wine comes out 10 times more when it’s on the bone,” she adds.
Loukaniko spitisio, or Cypriot sausages are also marinated in red wine and prominently feature sxoinos a beguiling Cypriot spice that recalls black pepper, coriander, and dill. “It took us many years of googling to finally find the equivalent of it in English, the schinus tree.” When family members and friends travel to Cyprus they always return with some in their suitcase for the crew at Zenon.
And since hunting is big in Cyprus ortikia, or char-grilled quail, will also be part of the evening’s bill of fare. Other items on the 18-item menu include grilled octopus, olive pies, lamb meatballs, and melitzanosalada, a Cypriot eggplant dip, which Elena is quick to point out isn’t your every day baba ghanouj. The roasted eggplant is mixed with feta cheese, spices, and gets a unique zing from pickled Cypriot caper leaves.
At one time the building which houses Zenon Taverna was home to the benevolent Cyprian Association. The restaurant is named for the Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium. Elena recalls being in a college philosophy class and learning about the philosopher. When she came home and told her parents about it, they were shocked that she didn’t know about him already. “Actually, what my father said wasn’t that nice!” she recalled.