Hellenic regional fare has gotten short shrift in New York, as Greek restaurateurs have settled on a crowd-pleasing and nearly uniform menu of bread dips, feta-planked salads, and whole grilled fish. Now along comes Pylos just off Tompkins Square, replacing the short-lived It’s Greek to Me, a café whose silly name would have worked just as well for a gay bathhouse or a language institute flogged in subway cars. Pylos is Greek for the unglazed ceramic pots that hang precariously by the hundreds from the restaurant’s ceiling. If someone gets bonked one of these evenings, don’t say I didn’t warn you. The narrow dining room becomes progressively more cave-like as you venture into its deepest recesses, where a giant communal table—often empty on my visits—looks like it has been set for the return of Odysseus and his men. The augury: It will be thronged with locals and tourists long before the wandering hero reappears.
In a saturated East Village restaurant environment that puts a premium on novelty and innovation, Pylos is the right thing at the right time. The menu neglects whole fish in favor of regional specialties inspired by the Greek cookbooks of Diane Kochilas—in fact, she’s listed on the menu as consulting chef. Originating in the Ionian Islands—the site of Odysseus’s home port of Ithaca—just west of the mainland comes kotopoulo sartsa ($13), a half-chicken cooked in a crock with tomato sauce. Little rafts of gooey yet firm graviera cheese float on top. The dish is tasty, but it caused a friend to exclaim, “This doesn’t taste very Greek to me, more like Italian.” The northern mainland region of Epirus is credited with a pork stew called psaronefri ipirotiko ($15), medallions clay-cooked with onions and sweet peppers, reminding me of Eastern European kvarma. No surprise: ancient Epirus included parts of modern Albania. One of the main attractions of Pylos is that it confuses our idea of what Greek food ought to taste like.
The grilled sardines ($10) are some of the best I’ve had in the city, three charred beauties refreshingly dressed with purple onion, chopped tomato, and flat-leaf parsley. From the “Greek Comfort Foods” section of the menu, roast leg of lamb ($13) is delicious, though geographically unidentified, and so is the pastitsio, a macaroni-and-ground-meat pie topped with clouds of béchamel. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s offered—like fully half the entrees—in a crock. Though I’ve enjoyed nearly everything at Pylos, I’m disappointed that the menu ignores game like quail and rabbit, a major Greek passion, as well as the kebab of braided lamb liver, spleen, heart, sweetbreads, kidneys, intestines, and tripe known as kokkoretsi. Pylos clearly wants to challenge us, but not too much.
At bargain prices, the all-Greek wine list is filled with amazing bottles that drink as well as French and Italian varieties you’d pay two or three times as much for in another restaurant. My favorite red is Chateau Mercouri ($25), from a Peloponnisos estate, tannic and dry and subtle, with a slow unfolding of flavors in the mouth. White wine-wise, I’d go for anything from among the four choices made with the assyrtico grape. By the way, though you might be tempted to mix these wines 50-50 with seawater, as Odysseus did, I wouldn’t encourage it.