KINOPIASTES, Greece — This island of Corfu at the northwest end of Greece's Ionian Sea just across from the heel of the Italian boot is often called "the green island." Its abundant rainfall and natural springs have brought forth a garden of plenty that would please even Demeter, goddess of the earth.
The peaches, grapes, melons, tomatoes (at least three kinds), cucumbers, endive and other fruits and vegetables here complement the skills of shepherds and fishermen who provide a constant supply of lamb and seafood.
This cornucopia of produce supplies one of the finest restaurants in all of Greece, Cafe Tripa (loosely translated, "Hole in the Wall"), in the village of Kinopiastes. Tripa began as a combination grocery and general store, then added a few tables.
The place soon became so popular that the owner was forced to bash down the back wall and put tables all through his garden beneath a formidable grape arbor. No more than 100 customers can savor dinner and the dancing that follows.
The fantastic country fare that made the restaurant so popular with vacationers and Corfinas is still prepared on the premises in a kitchen that looks straight out of a museum. A side of lamb is roasted every night on an iron spit in an improvised roasting pit just to the left of the front door. A table on the right groans under the weight of good things being readied for serving, and spices of all descriptions hang from the rafters.
As my friends and I walked through on our way to our table in the back, we drifted among the aromas of oregano, basil, garlic and honey.
Reservations are a must and demand for table space can become so heated tht patrons are usually crowded in on one another in breathless proximity. But service is always friendly (if a bit casual) and any unease at such close contact is quickly dispelled by the arrival of the first course.
Dinner in a Greek restaurant usually falls into three courses: the salads or meza (pronounced muh-ZAY), the main course and dessert. Each one is often a meal in itself, especially at Tripa.
Salads include slabs of fresh feta cheese, gleaming white and slightly salty from the brine used to preserve it, as well as Greek olives, smoked sausage links the size of dill pickels, salami as good as any made in Italy. Then there are dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), deep-fried stuffed tripe, smoked trout and a salad made up of tomatoes, chives, cucumbers, olives, feta cheese, endive and parsley.
Other exotic fare includes tzatziki , a yogurt sauce with a killer dosage of garlic, taramosalata (a roe pate) and octopus in red wine sauce.
I was skeptical about the octopus, having suffered through the "fried rubber bands" of Italian calamari or the "cold tire patches" of Japanese octopus sashimi . Apparently the Greeks heard my complaints, because along every wharf you will see fishermen painstakingly flinging a freshly caught octopus against a rock over and over to tenderize it. The result is meat with the flavor of chicken and the texture of shrimp.
Those of us used to courses served with some order were a bit put off by the Greek custom of bringing all the appetizers in a bunch. Dinner gets to be quite a free-for-all, with the plates of the various meza dumped all a-jumble on the table, plates flying around as everyone hurries to get a taste of each delicacy before it's gone. But no one ever complains too loudly with so many good things to choose from.
Tender and Juicy
Just when I thought I would burst, the main course arrived, a duo of veal baked in parchment and lamb roasted on a spit. The veal had been naturally tenderized by a cooking technique at least as old as Greece, but was much too heavily flavored with garlic. The lamb was tender and surprisingly juicy for having been cooked over a fire.
During it all, we washed everything down with pitchers of the local red wine. Although Tripa is anything but formal, bottled Greek wine is available for anyone preferring white or who is averse to wine served in ceramic pitchers. I found it all in keeping with the picnic atmosphere.
Local families rubbed elbows with us, children played around the tables, and a jolly din ebbed and flowed beneath the cloth stretched over the grape arbor to hold in the afternoon's heat. By 8 p.m. (the start of dinner in Greece), the hills above Corfu are chilly even in early September.
Finally, dessert came: walnuts in honey (much milder than the American variety), bread pudding, a deliciously sticky carrot cake and bowls of fruit. Not even California's legendary Thompson seedless grapes are as sweet as their Greek cousins, and the melons are delightfully light and juicy.