by Len Lear
A long time ago, 1978, to be exact, my wife and I found ourselves stranded at Orly Airport in Paris along with hundreds of other travelers because the workers at TWA, which was supposed to carry us back to Philadelphia, had just gone on strike. While waiting for hours to try to arrange a flight on another airline, we struck up a conversation with another stranded couple, Michael and Maria Papanicolopolous, residents of Piraeus, Greece, who had just gotten married and were on their way to a honeymoon in New York City.
We talked and laughed for hours, and when we finally hitched a ride on another plane, the newlyweds invited us to visit them in their home about 12 miles outside of Athens. (That’s a long ride from Chestnut Hill.) We said we’d try, and we proceeded to carry on a mail correspondence — real hand-written letters, long before email — for three years before we finally did get on a plane and travel to Athens, where democracy was invented more than 2400 years ago.
Michael and Maria told us that hospitality was revered in Greece, and they certainly proved it. They both took the week off from their jobs, picked us up at our hotel every morning and drove us around to see historic sights like the Parthenon and Mount Olympus. They took us to their local restaurants and pubs, introduced us to their friends and relatives, practically threatened us when we tried to pick up a check and essentially treated us like royalty. We offered to return the favor, but they never did make it to Philadelphia (a combination of two Greek words, by the way, “philia” — brotherly love — and “delphos” — city).
We could not help but think of Michael and Maria Papanicolopolous (whose name took up an entire business-sized envelope) when we visited Opa, 1311 Sansom St., on March 9. That’s because Opa (the traditional Greek exclamation of glee), which opened Feb. 10, is a Greek restaurant owned by a Greek-American brother and sister team, George Tsiouris, 34, and Vasiliki, 32, and the warm hospitality exuded by the staff — from George to manager Noel Zayas to general manager Ken Valles to the servers — reminded us of our memorable experiences in Greece.
“There is a neighborhood in Athens called Gazi, and it reminds us very much of this neighborhood,” explained George, whose handsome face reminded us of Donny Osmond. “We had looked at many possible locations for a restaurant, but that’s one of the main reasons we settled on this place.” (Opa, which seats 70, is situated in a building that had been vacant for many years and before that was a print shop.)
The Tsiouris siblings were practically weaned on the restaurant business. Their parents owned and operated the Continental Inn, a 250-seat giant, at Bridge and Pratt Streets in Frankford for 40 years until 2005. The chef at Opa, Andrew Brown, 35, a native of Upper Darby, also has an impressive pedigree, having cooked at White Dog Cafe, Django and Alison 2 in Fort Washington, among others. He worked with Tsiouris’ mom to create the menu of traditional Greek dishes at Opa “that have been freshened up.”
Opa’s design features an expansive island bar area with 24 seats and a bar made of river rock that is back-dropped by a dramatic wooden canopy constructed of birch branches. A plaster wall houses candle-lit lanterns in colorful recesses, casting a warm glow along the back wall and suspended handmade terra cotta fixtures. In the rear is a banquette area with tables made of reclaimed oak.
Chef Andrew Brown has obviously found his sweet spot. An appetizer of grilled octopus, braised for four hours, with chili oil and the best chickpea concoction we have ever tasted ($12), was so savory that the day after having this dish, I began to miss it like dry earth misses the rain. A roasted beet salad with red and gold beets, fennel, arugula and goat cheese ($9) was also sublime
A huge appetizer that is more than enough for two people is the aesthetically presented cheese board, several cheeses with honey, nuts, fruit and black pepper olive oil ($14), but the best part for us was the accompaniments — a velvety yogurt sauce, a titillating feta and red pepper-based sauce and pristine hummus.
A dessert of baklava, one of the world’s greatest sweets — layered flaky dough with walnuts, honey and a scoop of fig ice cream ($8) — was a delightful epilogue to this savory story. The only negatives for us were a cup of cold coffee (I asked for a replacement, and the second one was also cold) and a cocktail with bourbon, amaretto and syrup that could have knocked out a horse.
But Opa is the food equivalent of a late Mozart piano concerto with its harmonic invention and seemingly artless and uncluttered — but memorable — lack of embroidery. Like Mozart, Opa is elevating the art of simplification to new heights. Portions are good-sized, and prices are reasonable. An Opa experience is not just a slice of life but the whole pie. And that’s the whole tooth and nothing but.
There is an indoor garage right across the street from Opa that is $10 after 5 p.m. For more information, call 215-545-0170 or visit www.opaphiladelphia.com.