Words by Joe Ricchio | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
Amidst the sea of Portland’s Mediterranean restaurants, Emilitsa is still a reliable beacon of light a decade since its inception.
In a city that has, over the past decade, seen an unprecedented level of national recognition, Emilitsa has quietly and confidently cruised under the radar. It rarely shows up in the numerous “Portland, ME: 10 places you MUST eat” listicles geared toward tourists, and a surprisingly large number of people who live in and around the city have yet to hear about it. Despite all this, Emilitsa has established one of the most dedicated followings in Portland.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel throughout Greece, you will find that whether you are close to the Bulgarian border in Drama or basking in the sun on black-sand beaches in the tropical paradise of Santorini, you’ll find certain elements on virtually every table. The first is a tomato salad, most often with cucumbers, feta, and high-quality olive oil, and the second is the cheese pie, or in most cases spanakopita—a dish that most Americans associate with passed hors d’oeuvres at corporate functions or their local house of pizza. All of the ingredients are simple, humble, and delicious—served alongside classics like moussaka and pastitsio in a casual tavern setting.
Therefore, when brothers John and Demos Regas opened Emilitsa in 2009, they were taking a risk. They composed one of the city’s more expensive menus, revolving around a cuisine that most diners expect to be the exact opposite, as well as an all-Greek wine list made up of varietals that even most wine professionals were unfamiliar with. Limiting the options gave patrons no choice but to experience the joy of fresh, lightly fried chicken livers with herbs and beurre blanc alongside a sprightly Greek rosé with a finish ever so reminiscent of olives. One may have enjoyed spanakopita on multiple occasions, but there was still the desire to find out how good it could be at Emilitsa.
I suspect that the reason I have never had a disappointing meal at Emilitsa in 10 years is that it just does not change. The tables made from butcher block, the exposed brick walls, and the wine rack that separates the dining room from the lounge do not feel dated, and the beautiful Calacatta marble bar looks as pristine as ever. John is still as intimately involved with every meticulous detail in the dining room as he was on day one; the flatware and stemware are always guaranteed to be spotless.
“I will admit that we were originally planning to open a Greek deli and bakery,” John says. “But when we found the 547 Congress Street location, we fell in love with the character of the room, which led us to envision and create what the restaurant is today.”
The array of six traditional Greek spreads, served with warm, fresh pita, is as delicious as you will find anywhere. Melitzanosalata, fire-roasted eggplant with red onion and capers, could be described as “eggplant caviar,” and the htipiti, whipped feta with roasted jalapeños, has a delicate heat and a slightly more rustic texture than others I’ve tasted. The grilled Australian lamb loin is still of excellent quality, with an intense flavor and velvety texture imparted from marinating in Greek olive oil and herbs. Few wines pair better with lamb than Xinomavro, a grape grown in the region of Naoussa and literally translating to “sour black.” It has the aging potential and tannic structure of Nebbiolo, the grape used in iconic Italian wines like Barolo and Barbaresco.
The most significant change came in 2014 when, after five years spent working through all stations in the kitchen, Niko Regas took the reins from his father, Demos, as executive chef. He continues to prepare the greatest hits, such as Gulf of Maine scallops sautéed in tomato cream sauce with ouzo and feta, while developing and honing his own dishes to perfection, evidenced in his Moulard duck breast.
“I was inspired by classic chicken Marsala,” Niko says. “And over the course of a few months, I finally arrived on what I was looking for.”
This involved blackening the breast on the outside and serving the meat at a perfect medium rare, with a vibrant squash purée and sautéed oyster mushrooms complementing the cream sauce that substituted Mavrodaphne, a sweet Greek dessert wine, for the Marsala. At the other end of the spectrum, needing only the addition of olive oil, lemon, and garlic, is the whole gilt-head bream, a fish indigenous to the Mediterranean. Wines like Assyrtiko, from the southern islands, have a brightness and salinity that make them an ideal pairing here, and when in doubt, keep in mind that the entire staff is very well-versed in Greek varietals.
Digestifs are not an afterthought, as John has selected three styles of ouzo, probably the most well-known Greek libation outside of, unfortunately, Retsina, and tasting them side by side can be revelatory. The dessert offerings range from an essential yet superlative baklava to composed dishes like chocolate Greek yogurt cheesecake with feta-infused caramel, fresh whipped cream, and toasted pistachios. To aid in maintaining the appetite, I recommend a glass of tsipouro, Greece’s answer to Italian grappa. It is, admittedly, a bit of an acquired taste, but in my opinion one worth developing.
On a busy Friday night, John deftly weaves around, engaging each diner in conversation while simultaneously scanning the room to ensure that one table has dessert silverware and another has the proper wineglasses for the bottle they have selected. It’s tight quarters along the length of the dining room, giving the whole row the feel of one big communal table, albeit with enough room to maneuver in and out from the banquette. This means that more often than not, you find yourself in the middle of several conversations at once, and while there may be a range of very different worldviews, every patron finds common ground in enjoyment of some of the best Greek fare around.