Food Fighter

Time and again, Valley restaurant legend Nick Ligidakis has cooked his own goose. Will Cafe Niko be another overtrimmed turkey?

Perhaps too many tons. "I'd bet that if he sold these dishes for two-thirds the price and gave half the portions, he'd do okay," says Seftel. "As it is, I suspect he's keeping out as many people as he's bringing in. Serving people portions that big is not customer-friendly. Dining out should be pleasurable, not a chore."

Veteran Ligidakis-watcher Elin Jeffords says she long ago gave up trying to fathom Ligidakis' messiahlike hold over a select group of Valley diners.

"The whole Nick thing continues to be an enigma to me," admits Jeffords, a longtime Valley restaurant critic who now operates her own consulting firm. Claiming that Ligidakis' fame always seemed way out of proportion to the number of people who'd actually eaten at any of his "Greek diners gone berserk," she adds, "His appeal was very cultish--it was almost like he was widely known by relatively few. I'm still mystified."

Ligidakis-watchers have good reason to scratch their heads. A complex bundle of contradictions, the man is a riddle within a conundrum within a grape leaf.

While boasting that recipes frequently come to him in his sleep, he adamantly refuses to make substitutions, claiming the dishes represent "years of work and knowledge." Well-known for programs to provide Thanksgiving dinners for the hungry (in 1995, his efforts fed 32,000), he routinely propagates waste at his restaurants by serving customers Brobdingnagian portions that would tax Chris Farley. And though he's a control freak of the first order, he repeatedly becomes involved in restaurant ventures far, far beyond the scope of any one person. (Watching Ligidakis in action, one food critic aptly characterized him as "a crazed team athlete playing every position at once.")

But don't waste your time trying to figure him out.
"There's no rhyme nor reason to the Nick Ligidakis philosophy," explains a former Ligidakis employee of several years. "He's not about business, he's about food and creativity. You either go along with him or you don't. Right or wrong, everything is his way."

But despite that legendary inflexibility (admittedly a trait not unknown in the temperamental food community), Ligidakis has "passion," insists one longtime pal.

"That's one thing nobody can take away from Nick," says Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer, owner of Razz's Restaurant in Scottsdale. "You're going to find very few people with the heart that guy's got. He's amazing."

Despite Ligidakis' spectacular string of failed restaurants, Kamnitzer remains optimistic about the future of his friend's latest venture. "This [new] one is going to work out, and you know why?" asks Kamnitzer. "Because it's small, it's intimate and his family's working with him."

Kamnitzer laughs. "He's on his fifth restaurant? I'm on my sixth; I've got him beat by one. Hey, some of us are born to be creative geniuses--but when it comes to business, we just suck."

Nick Ligidakis' beetling brow twists into a hirsute knot. At first, he tries to ignore the pots and pans clattering together in the kitchen. But when the noise continues, he's unable to concentrate on conversation and finally excuses himself from the table to investigate.

Peace restored to the scullery, Ligidakis returns and shrugs. "When I first came to this country, I used to see people work so hard in the restaurants that I thought there was something wrong with them," he says. "You either have to love it or be crazy, one or the other."

Where does Ligidakis fit in? With no prompting, he admits that his devotion to the business has taken its toll on his personal life--past restaurant failures have cost him his car, his home and his marriage.

It also caused friction with his three children, including two grown sons who now work alongside their father at Cafe Niko.

"I think the reason my children used to depise this business is not because they didn't like it, but because it took so much time away from them," he says. "They don't want to do the same thing to their children--and I don't blame them. I don't want to do that to my grandchildren, either."

Surveying his latest dining dominion--the 1,600-square-foot cafe is his smallest space since the first operation on East McDowell--Ligidakis nods his head.

The display cases are stocked with dozens of pastries and, despite no advertising, the reservation book is filling up for the weekend. Preparations for this year's Thanksgiving charity dinners (the goal is to serve 15,000) are on track. His self-published autobiography (titled 5024 E. McDowell, the address of his first pizzeria) is selling well, and orders are already coming in for Heroes of My Thoughts, his next tome. And, for public consumption, at least, Ligidakis doesn't even seem particularly concerned that because of a noncompete clause in his lease--there's an Italian restaurant several doors down--he won't be able to sell either pizza or calzones, the two dishes that put him on the map.

For the time being, at least, Ligidakis' life is good.
"When I opened this place, I had no idea I could make so many people happy," says Ligidakis. "For the past year, I could not go into the grocery store without people making me feel guilty because I didn't have a restaurant."

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