Come for the views of the Gulf Coast. Stay for the gyro.
Sponges first brought Greeks and their culture to Tarpon Springs, Florida. The deep-sea diving suits they wore allowed them to harvest deeper and further from shore.
Greeks quickly took over the industry and in short order after arriving in 1905, also became the majority population in the small town on the Gulf of Mexico just north of St. Petersburg.
While sponge diving continues to provide a living for a handful of Greek residents in Tarpon Springs, it is that culture, particularly the food and the tourists seeking it out, which supports the community today.
Greek Food in Tarpon Springs
Much of the Greek food found in Tarpon Springs is a specialty, a regional cuisine originating from the Dodecanese islands region, and Kalymnos in particular. Like any other country, Greece is not a monolith, and within it are a variety of cultural idiosyncrasies.
Take Mizithra cheese, for example.
This versatile, unpasteurized cheese from sheep or goats can be soft and eaten like feta, or dried and grated like Parmesan. It plays a key role in a signature dish around Tarpon Springs: Mermizeli salad. This resembles the standard Greek salad with tomato, cucumber, olives, raw onions, dressed in olive oil, vinegar, oregano, but instead of Feta cheese, the Kalymnians add the soft, wet version of Mizithra cheese and paximadia, a barley bread cut into small pieces and baked repeatedly to dehydrate.
Paximadia compares to unseasoned croutons and is another rarity almost exclusive to Tarpon Springs among Greek restaurants in the States.
Greek Food Here Versus Elsewhere
In “Tarpon,” however, even the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
“The most extreme difference between a typical thing you’re going to find anywhere [in America] at a Greek place and Tarpon, is the staples, a gyro or souvlaki,” Panayotis League said.
League spent part of his childhood in Tarpon Springs and in 2019 was named a Master Artist by the Florida Folklife Program for his work performing and teaching the traditional music and oral poetry of Kalymnos in Tarpon.
His favorite gyro can be found at The Limani, right on the sponge docks (776 Dodecanese Blvd.).
“I’ve never had a better sandwich in the U.S.” he raves. “Their gyro rivals anything I’ve had in Greece.”
What makes it so good?
“The fries are the secret weapon because (Greeks) put them inside the sandwich,” League explains.
That’s right, the fries go inside the pita bread alongside the meat, onions, tomato and tzatziki.
“The fries have to be cooked evenly and really crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside, and they do it perfectly every time,” League says. “That’s the Greek style. It makes all the difference. (The Limani makes) the fries with the intention of putting them in a sandwich so they cook them in a different way.”
For big eaters, the portions are as large as the smiles at Mykonos (628 Dodecanese Blvd.), where dining for lunch approximates stumbling into the Salivaras family’s big fat Greek kitchen. Close and bustling with food everywhere, their Kalymnian Salad features a giant dollop of whipped Feta on top and eats like a meal.
But don’t stop there. Push through for house specialties including the papoutsaki—fresh eggplant stuffed and baked with ground beef—or another Tarpon rarity, lamb fricassee.
“We’re the only (restaurant) at the sponge docks that carry it, but it’s very common in Greece,” Koula Salivaras, who now runs Mykonos, said. “It’s a lamb shank covered in endives and a lemon sauce.”
For a fine dining experience, the Salivaras family also owns and operates Dimitri’s on the Water across the street from Mykonos, which offers breathtaking views of the Anclote River along with mouthwatering steak, fresh seafood, and, of course, Greek specialties.
Local grocers and bakeries let visitors take a taste of Tarpon home with them. Pick up olives and cheese at Acropolis Meats & Deli (148 E. Tarpon Ave.); National Bakery (451 Athens St.) has been making fresh bread and pastries daily since 1925; the baklava cheesecake at Hellas Bakery and Restaurant (307 Roosevelt Ave.) will satisfy any sweet tooth.
And don’t just eat the food, meet the people. That’s easy according to League, “Ask questions, because Greeks love nothing more than talking about themselves.”
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