On any given Friday night at It’s Greek To Me restaurant in Catalina, diners may be hard-pressed to find a seat at this restaurant known for its authentic Greek cuisine. What won’t be hard to find are co-owners Jimmy Pastore and Jeff Bridge walking among the tables, checking to make sure that every patron is enjoying themselves.
Pastore, an Italian from Chicago, and Bridge, a Jew from Baltimore, met in 1982 when both worked in the kitchen at Harpo’s Restaurant on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue. They bonded over food preparation and vowed to someday own a restaurant together.
In 2013, that dream finally became a reality when they purchased It’s Greek To Me, an already popular restaurant in Catalina. Although neither had any cultural ties to Greek cuisine or knowledge of how to prepare it, they had been frequent patrons of the restaurant for more than a year and seized the opportunity to purchase the property when the previous owner decided to retire. Before he had thought about buying it, Pastore, an experienced chef, was even asked to prepare a special menu one evening by previous owner George Varnasidis, just so he could try out the kitchen.
“A Jew and an Italian came together to open a Greek restaurant. These are three of the most food-centric cultures you can have under one roof,” Bridge said. “We know food, and we know good food.”
The long-established restaurant had a loyal following for its classical Greek menu—spanakopita, dolmades, keftedes, Greek salads, braised lamb shank, and several versions of souvlaki and gyros. Still, Pastore and Bridge knew that there was opportunity to improve.
Executive chef Pastore’s goal was to eliminate all premixed or prepackaged food items from the kitchen.
The first change he made was to stop ordering the key ingredient of many of the sauces and desserts found on the menu—Greek yogurt.
In 2014, It’s Greek To Me became the first restaurant in the region known to make its own Greek yogurt. A yogurt doesn’t have to come from the homeland to be Greek, Pastore says. With the popularity of commercial Greek yogurt on the supermarket shelves, he says, there can be a misperception about what makes Greek yogurt, well, Greek. “It’s the process through which it is produced, not where,” Pastore says.
Yogurt is produced by the bacterial fermentation of milk. The bacteria used to make yogurt are known as yogurt cultures. The milk is heated to 180 degrees to kill any “bad” bacteria and to “denature” the milk proteins so that they set together and don’t form a curd.
The milk is then cooled to about 112 degrees, the cultures are added, and then it sits for four to seven hours to allow fermentation. Fermentation of lactose by these bacteria produces lactic acid, which acts on milk protein to give yogurt its texture.
To make Greek yogurt, during cooling, whey from the milk is strained off, usually by storing the mixture in a cloth bag overnight, and removed before the active cultures are mixed in. This result is a creamier yogurt “with more bite, more body, and more flavor,” Pastore says.
The Greeks introduced this straining method hundreds of years ago—hence the title. Traditionally made with cow or ewe’s milk, the process produces a yogurt that is higher in protein, lower in lactose, and lower in carbohydrates.
Working with an original culture that has now reproduced more than 100 generations of bacteria—that is, 100 batches of yogurt—the restaurant currently produces about 40 gallons of Greek yogurt a week. “By using our own culture, we keep the good bacteria alive and kicking,” Pastore says. “Having real Greek yogurt just goes along with supporting our mission to provide real and authentic food to our guests.”
The entire process takes about 62 hours from start to finish. Pastore says that in the slow season during the summer, the restaurant will use two batches a week, four in the busier months. They sell their yogurt at the restaurant, and occasionally attend the St. Philip’s Plaza Farmers’ Market when supplies allow.
Pastore and Chef Casey Yeaton have made other changes as well, including increasing their seafood selection, growing their own herbs on property, using local farmers’ products, and making every dish from scratch, with two exceptions: the gyro bread brought in from Chicago and the San Marzono tomatoes shipped from Italy. The tomatoes, Pastore says, are “the only thing in a can.” “Fresh grown tomatoes here are very inconsistent and we need that consistency in our sauces to maintain the recipes.”
The changes seem to have only enhanced the dining experience. Walking around the restaurant each night, both Bridge and Pastore pay careful attention to what their customers have to say, where they’re from, and how they enjoyed their food preparation.
“People tell us it’s like stepping out of Tucson and into Greece,” Bridge says.
“It all comes down to hearing our customers’ story and building a rapport with them,” Pastore adds. “People don’t just come here for the food, they’re coming for the experience, and we’re part of that experience.”
Add 2 gallons of whole milk to a large saucepot. Set on low heat and raise to 180, being very careful not to scorch the bottom. Turn off and drop the temperature to 140.
Add 1 quart of activator. It’s Greek to Me started with organic goat yogurt and has fostered additional generations to add to each batch they now make. You can purchase yogurt from the restaurant to start your own, or select any organic Greek yogurt. Stir, being careful not to scrape the bottom of the pot.
Wrap up and insulate pot with blankets to hold heat for 24 hours, then refrigerate for 24 hours.
Strain remaining yogurt in straining bags and discard the whey. Remove from the straining bags and you have fresh Greek-style yogurt.The yogurt will keep for up to two weeks refrigerated, one to two months frozen. ✜
It’s Greek To Me Restaurant. 15920 N. Oracle Road, #120. 520.825.4199. ItsGreektoMeTucson.com.
Mary Minor Davis is a freelance writer who loves eating food almost as much as she loves writing about it. She lives in Tucson with her husband and a menagerie of mammals.