Tastes Like Turkey
The interior of It's Greek to Me recalls the island of Mykonos: A wood-and-canvas windmill built right into the wall flaps slightly as the front door opens, but never quite rotates. A red tile roof shades the grill area, while the dining room in front is bright enough to make you feel like you're basking on the beach. The restaurant is located on the hardscrabble stretch of Jersey City's Newark Avenue that slithers under the turnpike extension and then climbs the embankment to Journal Square, and is a recent addition to a Jersey chain that seeks to bridge the gap between fast food and fine dining. For a chain, the food is pretty damn good. And cheap too.
While the décor suggests the islands, the food is mainly mainland, emphasizing the shish kebabs called souvlaki rather than the whole fish of Astorian Greeks. The "GTM mixed grill" ($28.95) is a spectacular deal; easily enough to feed three or four: a meat mesa thrusting upward in jumbled shades of gray and brown, composed of ground-beef bifteki, rubbery lamb gyro with mellow hints of sage, and lamb and pork souvlaki. Sometimes there are chicken tidbits too. If you want to cherry-pick the best, order the pork souvlaki separately (platter $13.95 platter, pita sandwich $6.50). Among appetizers, the meatballs called keftedes are engagingly light and herby, virtually indistinguishable from the buoyant zucchini balls called kolo-kithokeftedes ($5.95), a specialty of Crete.
The menu's memorable oddities come from the eastern mainland region of Thessaly, on the Aegean Sea, and reflect the region's Turkish culinary influence. Imam baldi is a legendary Anatolian recipe, a braise of eggplant slices surmounted by garlic, tomatoes, and a luxurious quantity of olive oil, the exorbitant cost of which supposedly led to the name, which translates as "the imam fainted." (Another story suggests he swooned from pleasure upon tasting it.) Here the dish has been repurposed as a domed casserole ($10.95), swimming in plain tomato sauce and sided with boxcars of feta.
Until recently, my favorite thing on the menu was another Turkish-leaning specialtypeinirli, a name derived from the Turkish word peynir, meaning cheese. The capacious dough canoe floated in, filled with molten kasseri cheese. "Is there cheese in the crust too?" Scooter asked, channeling Domino's. Back in Thessaly, peinirli often comes stuffed with french fries in addition to cheese, but the best version at I.G.T.M. featured a couple of runny fried eggs dumped on top of the cheese, making a miraculous gut bomb. Alas, by my second visit, all four peinirlis had been expunged from the menu. Pray to the oracles that they be brought back.
The garlic-laced potato dip skordalia also disappeared from the menu during the same era, which is OK, because it was way too bland. Better appetizing choices include a garlicky beetroot salad ($5.95), and wonderful fried calamari ($9.95), accompanied by an Italian-leaning tomato dipping sauce. Phyllo-bearing Greek desserts, with their intravenous drip of sticky honey, are eminently skippable as far as I'm concerned, but the homemade yogurt topped with walnuts and deluged with wildflower honey is one of the menu's must-haves ($4.95). I was still licking it off my lips as I exited the restaurant around 10 one evening, nodded to the street people and drug dealers outside, and sprinted up Newark Avenue toward Journal Square.
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