Winged Nike Smiles on Portsmouth's Newest Eatery:
A Restaurant Review of Cafe Nostimo

by HCSStaff

(HCS)--A short time ago we had heard about a new Greek eatery opening up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We have to confess that we were reluctant at first to try it because we had been disappointed so many times with Greek restaurants. Often what seems acceptable to non-Greek reviewers, is wholly unacceptable to us. The fine culinary skills of our mothers and grandmothers have set a standard rarely met in commercial restaurant service--or at Greek festivals. But in this case, our decision turned out to be a great one.Cafe Nostimo now holds the top spot in our list of restaurants serving Greek cuisine. Nike smiled and sped Nancy and Dean Zottos to victory, far outstripping any rivals.

From the moment we walked into this elegantly casual eatery, we were delighted. The sleek lines and strong color of its interior reminded us of Greek coffee, the cornerstone of traditional cuisine and culture. Touches of ocean-blue mosaics enhanced the decor and brought back fond reminiscences of Aegean seaside tavernas. Narrow pendant lights emphasized the restaurant's modern, clean lines above sleek booths and tables. And as our gaze took in the entire setting, we spied Mediterranean-themed artwork and vintage sepia family photos completing the stylish decor.

Despite the late afternoon hour, the restaurant was busy. And mouth-watering aromas were directing us naturally to the counter from where patrons ordered their meals. When we learned that the dishes were all made according to family recipes, we opted for the spanakopita plate (Greek spinach pie) and lamb souvlaki (shishkebob), with rice pilaf and Greek salad sides and a soup starter ("avgolemono" or egg-lemon soup). The prices were very reasonable: we paid less than twenty-six dollars, taking a numbered ticket for our food. Seating ourselves at a table near the windows, we listened to a nice selection of popular and traditional Greek music kept at a low volume. A very short time later, two large, "nostimo" platters arrived at our table, served by pleasant wait-staff.

Our spanakopita was, to put it simply, the very best we have ever eaten at any restaurant along the U.S. eastern seaboard, from New England to Florida. Once sampled, we knew that the servers were telling the truth about the recipes--this one had be made from scratch using a family recipe. Not only was the filling very light, but the phyllo sheets topping the spinach-cheese mixture had been individually buttered, making them golden brown and lightly crispy. But the "proof was in the pudding" as the old adage goes, and this dish was no exception. For the spinach had been properly prepared: destemmed, in small pieces, mixed equally with tasty cheese and beaten eggs. The result was a heavenly filling where the tastes of all the ingredients blended smoothly together. The rice pilaf also met with approval, as did the side Greek salad
whose feta cheese was deliciously creamy and Greek olives were pitted.

And lest we forget, soup afficionados will welcome the Greek Egg-Lemon Soup here--it's creamy with a lemon tang, and has chicken chunks and rice. We took ours home to finish later, a sure sign that we enjoyed it.

We also chose lamb souvlaki (shishkebab), even though it is another dish difficult to prepare properly in a commercial setting. Here, too, Cafe Nostimo broke the ribbon at the finish line. The tender and tasty meat had been cut into small to medium-sized pieces and served atop rice pilaf. One bite told us that this dish was prepared by a chef knowledgeable about Greek dishes and using only the best ingredients.

But, hold onto your fisherman's hat. After sighing over the meals and soup, we couldn't believe that the galatoboureko was better than our aunt's. Nai. It was perfect.(For our non-Greek friends, it's a honeyed custard filling beneath phyllo sheets, laborious and difficult to make properly.) We'd go back just for the dessert, even if the meals hadn't been superb.

Our curiosity was now thoroughly peaked: we wanted to meet the owner and the chef, certain that one or both must be of Greek ancestry. Upon our inquiry, the owner/chef, Dean Zottos, came out to greet us. Personable and proud of his heritage, he revealed that his restaurant's menu was designed entirely around his grandparents' recipes, handed down to him by his parents. It was hard work, though, he admitted, since he and his wife had done all of the remodeling themselves, then planned the menu and designed the operational procedures. All the food preparation is done in-house, from fresh ingredients. Even the meat is cut and marinaded at Cafe Nostimo, he added.

There was a demand for Greek food in the seacoast area, he explained, based on his experience heading up the annual Greek festival for the St.Nicholas GreekOrthodox Church in Portsmouth. So, he and his wife Nancy decided to open their own place. But today's busy lifestyles suggested a more casual approach to restaurant dining, one that combined rapid cafeteria and full restaurant service, including takeout packaging. Open nearly one month, the restaurant's clear success--waiting lines on weekends--is a tribute to their hard work and dedication. But we had detected the voice of experience in speaking with Dean about the restaurant business; he confirmed that his family had been in the restaurant business for many decades in the Manchester, New Hampshire area. In fact, several questions later we were surprised to learn that we shared some ancestral village origins in Greece.
Then again, among Greek-Americans, it isn't an altogether rare occurence to find that ancestors share village origins. What is indeed rare, on the other hand, is to find a Greek eatery serving the home-made recipes of these ancestors. Cafe Nostimo wins this competition, hands down!

For more information, visit the restaurant's website at and read reviews in Foster's Daily Democrat ["Cafe Nostimo opens at Portsmouth; Greekfood fans get new place to indulge all year" at the URL] and in Portsmouth Atlantic News []

(Posting date 03 March 2008. Photos supplied by Cafe Nostimo.)

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