Fried: Saganaki at Greekfest

Sweet dreams are made of fried cheese! Who am I to disagree?

By Sarah Fenske

I've been thinking about friendship lately, friendship and Greek food.

One of my best friends in high school back in Cleveland, Chelsea, was half Greek and half Irish. But since her father was absent and her YaYa, or grandmother, was a particularly strong presence, it was her Greek side that she cherished. The highlight every May for her -- and us, her lucky friends -- was the Church of the Assumption's annual Greek Festival. We'd pile our plates with dolmathes and spanakopita, add a fat slab of pastitio and some stuffed peppers, and then maybe even a leg of lamb. Washed down with a cup of cold beer in the church's raucous great hall, it was the best food I'd ever eaten.

It was Chelsea, too, who introduced me to saganaki -- that wonderful Greek kasseri cheese, soaked in brandy and flambeed tableside, followed by a long squeeze of lemon. It's over the top, in the way tableside flambees are by definition over the top, but it really is the yummiest thing imaginable.

Chelsea and I have lost touch, which may be why I thought of her Saturday night as I sat at Greekfest, the wonderfully spacious family-owned taverna at 20th Street and Camelback Road. I was there with a group of six women and one boyfriend, saying goodbye to two dear friends who are leaving Phoenix for (literally) greener pastures: Austin and San Diego.

So we sipped the soft red Greek wine and shrieked stories back and forth. Seriously, we were so loud that the only table nearby asked the waiter to move them, and not one of us could blame them. We just love talking; even Grace, the introvert of the group, has the world's loudest laugh.

But even in the middle of the din, I couldn't help but think about past Greek meals, and about how friendships can wither from neglect. It's kind of amazing, but even in this world of free long-distance calling and constant email, we can still lose track of the people we love if we're not vigilant. There's a cautionary tale.

We ordered saganaki, but we were all too busy chatting to yell the requisite "Opa!" except for the vigilant Andrea, so of course we had to order a second plate of it. When our waiter lit the cheese this time, we all shouted the magic word. And of course the dish was perfect: salty, savory, the crust seared and the center soft. We all cut thick slabs and scarfed it up on the excellent house-made pita.

I think everything on the menu at Greekfest is divine. (If you really want to know how good squid can taste, try the cold calamari appetizer; it's insanely good.) And as the wine flowed freely, and our appetizers were whisked away and out came the Greek salads and then the silky rich moussaka, I vowed not to forget my buddies -- and, of course, to get back to Greekfest ASAP.

Lili and Grace, please come back to visit soon. If nothing else, your Phoenix friends can promise you some really great fried cheese.