Not much is different at Zorba's Greek and Italian Cuisine on Broad Street, even though it didn't open until 1991. Like a throwback to the restaurants of my childhood years of the '60s and '70s, the plastic plants, chintz curtains and baby-blue booths have hurtled straight out of the past. Greek music wails in the background and basketball dominates the TV over the bar, while clashing plates and raised voices from the kitchen can be heard faintly over the general din.
This is a family place first and foremost. Grandparents dine quietly in the corner while new parents cope with truculent babies. Young teenagers argue with their parents, and elementary-schoolers are scolded for blowing bubbles with straws in their milk.
A hush falls over each table, however, when the food arrives, teetering on large trays and threatening to tip over the slender, black-clad waitresses with exotic accents. Mountains of pasta, towers of spanikopita and outstanding homemade rolls the size of baseballs, hot from the oven, crowd the table and eventually make their way into boxes to take home after the meal.
Mehmet Akpinar, owner and host, checks on each table and infects all with his good cheer. His expansive amiability almost makes you forget that not every dish groaning on the table is as fabulous as, say, the charred pork of the souvlaki, fragrant with garlic and oregano, or as surprising as the moist, crispy strips of chicken tenders from the children's menu. They don't do phyllo well here and that's almost a crime in a restaurant serving Greek cuisine. The layers are compact instead of flaky, dry instead of lusciously oily with melted butter, and the various fillings dense instead of airy. Although the spanikopita is full of onions and spiked generously with dill, the feta is missing in action. The cheesy tiropita oozes gooey goodness, but the phyllo surrounding it is undercooked. And the baklava is so compressed and sticky that it's almost inedible.
The red sauce is dull here as well, pining for more garlic despite its little flecks of fresh Italian parsley. The memory of Sidewalk Café's spaghetti a la Greek rudely intrudes upon the dish Zorba serves and makes one wonder why everyone doesn't bake on the cheese first before applying a copious amount of pungent marinara or meat sauce. The hummus struggles under the weight of too much tahini and the tsatsiki is my least favorite kind, heavy with sour cream instead of zingy Greek yogurt.
All is forgiven however, after one bite of the perfectly prepared pastitsio. Cinnamon-scented ground beef in tomato sauce supports a layer of tiny, tender penne, which in turn is blanketed by an immoderate amount of creamy cheese custard. It's a crazy dish when you think about it; it ought to lie in your stomach like calorie-injected rocks. But instead, Zorba's pastitsio gives the illusion of effortlessly melting away upon ingestion, despite the tale your scale may tell the next morning. The dolmades, stuffed with tomato-laced rice and sharp with lemon, are cooked fresh to order and arrive hot at the table and that alone demands attention. I've eaten a lot of stuffed grape leaves, but never any other than straight from the refrigerator.
In fact, if you jettison the starchy filo and pasta dishes, Zorba's equation changes radically. The simple meats and ultra-traditional Greek dishes really shine without all the clutter, and are enhanced by beefy rice and broad beans doused with garlicky tomatoes. The service is quick and efficient, and the Greek house wine, both red and white, is light, cheap and inoffensive.
Most of all, though, Zorba's is a friendly place, soothing in that nostalgic kind of way, and indisputably comfortable. A lot of decent food can be had for very little money, and you know what? They like children there they really do. It's just the kind of neighborhood place you wish you could transport to your neighborhood. But even if you can't, you're willing to drive there, family in tow. S
Zorba's Greek & Italian Cuisine ($$)
9068 W. Broad St.
11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.