One of my most vivid recollections of Greece is set in the port of Piraeus. I haven’t checked the recent guidebooks of Rick Steves or the Lonely Planet, but in the mid-1960s Fielding and Fodor were ecstatic about a tavern and grocery store named Vasellina’s.
It was then a small and simple restaurant in a noncommercial area, but it was famous for its cuisine. The “lunch” I consumed lasted close to two hours. There was no menu – strictly table d’hote. My trip notes, now yellowed with age, still bring to my palate recollections of long ago.
Cleanse and prepare the taste buds with raw clams writhing under a shower of squeezed lemon. Wash down with retsina. Cold pink fish salad, great stout chunks of aromatic Roquefort, nibbles of smoked anchovies; shut the eyes and try not to think about what went into the surprisingly tasty head cheese.
While I am washing my gullet with more retsina, other courses arrive in leisurely succession. Greek olives, tomato and green pepper salad, shrimp, carrots, and pickles snuggling in a piquant sauce, octopus (will always taste like rubber bands and buttons), a dozen deep fried, breaded small fish called “marides,” and dolmades.
More wine, even if retsina makes me think I have been licking telephone poles. I pause for a breath or two, before diving into the scallop-sized, deep fried balls of langouste or tiny lobster, sausages, a cross-breed of Turkish borek and tamales, and exquisitely cooked mullet. A stretch and a concealed belch while the dour waiter is bringing hot, lemony soup and replenishing the wine carafe for the third or fourth time.
Then it’s time for stewed chicken. Top it all off with alternate bites of watermelon and cantaloupe and finally we are presented with a bill demanding about three dollars per person. No, that’s not an error. The year was 1968.
Despite the fame of the restaurant, we were the only patrons during the first four courses of our meal. Then in sailed Camille, an untidy, loud-mouthed grandmother, who managed to “fill” the restaurant all by herself. She had come from a ship plying from New York to Beirut with a stop in Piraeus.
She drew us into her circle of one, and we cringed in embarrassment as she began bossing the waiter around. “None of that furniture polish you call wine, I’ll take beer!” Her most charming maneuver was half masticating a wad of octopus and then plucking it from her maw to hurl to the two cats near our table.
Through her full-mouthed babblings, we learned that she was a writer of travel books, newspaper articles, etc. Born in England but sounding pretty much American, and dividing her time between Karachi and Beirut. Currently she was writing The Round the World Adventures of a Grandmother, for which James Michener had supposedly written a foreword.
Somewhere just before the lemon soup, she lurched upright and tacked toward the ladies’ loo. The catarrhal hackings we heard made us fear that she was losing all she had eaten thus far, but she reappeared in fine spirits and made the waiter wrap up everything she hadn’t eaten so she could take it back to the ship. As we were leaving, she wrote down our names, implored us to look her up in Beirut, told us what nice people we were, all with three or four watermelon seeds adhering to one of her chins or dewlaps.
We never got back to Beirut to take her up on her promised hospitality. I had assumed she must be long dead at this writing, but the wonders The most recent copyright date I found was 1998-thirty years after our meeting at Vasellina’s, an establishment that according to Google no longer exists.