Mediterranean Cuisine—Made with Love: From the Greek Island of Lefkada to Manhattan’s Westside Market, by Maria Zoitas
By Caroline Benveniste
With the dwindling number of supermarkets in the Village, it’s lucky that Villagers have access to a Westside Market on West 14th Street and 7th Avenue. But to call it a supermarket is unfair: when you shop there, you can of course find all the supermarket staples, but if you spend time combing the aisles, something I do a lot, you can find many hidden and not so hidden gems. The produce section is large and in addition to conventional and organic fruits and vegetables, there is a nice assortment of wild mushrooms. There is a gigantic cheese section with some hard-to-find Greek cheeses like Manouri. The olive selection is spectacular, and the Super Colossal Kalamata olives are the best I’ve found in New York. There are beers from all over, with a focus on craft breweries. But what really sets Westside Market apart is the expansive prepared food section. Ironically, however, it was almost by accident that Westside Market started carrying prepared foods.
I learned the history of the store from Maria Zoitas, the wife of John Zoitas, founder of Westside Market, whom I met at their Morningside Heights store. John immigrated in the 1960’s to the United States from Lefkada, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea on the west side of the country. In Lefkada he worked at his family’s oil press, but left there when he was still quite young and travelled to a number of countries looking for work, until he finally landed in New York. There, he first worked in a coffee shop and later in a grocery store in Morningside Heights near Columbia University. Eventually he was able to open his own store on Madison Street in Morningside Heights, and in 1977 he opened the original Westside Market on Broadway and 110th Street. John returned to Lefkada to find a wife, and there met a woman named Maria whom he married. Maria had cooked for her family in Greece, and continued cooking when she arrived in New York. She and John raised a family, but in the early 90’s, when the children were older, Maria decided that she wanted to find a job, but not a 9-5 office job. One day she went into Balducci’s (which used to be on 6th Avenue and 9th Street, where Citarella is now) and saw that they had a counter with lots of prepared foods, and she realized they could do the same at Westside Market. Since she knew that Americans liked cheesecake, she decided to start with that. Her husband was initially against the idea – he thought that people came to supermarkets to buy food to cook with, not to buy cooked food. But Maria kept pushing and he grudgingly went along and featured the cheesecakes which turned out to be a great hit. Maria then added spanakopita (Greek spinach pie), and a selection of Greek dips like taramosalata (made with fish roe). She had been making the food in her own kitchen, but since it was selling so well John set up a small primitive kitchen in the basement of the store, and they hired a friend of theirs from Lefkada who added soups to the line-up. Soon John had to build a large kitchen in the basement, and the offerings exploded. With a kitchen staff in place, Maria would teach everyone how to prepare the food and oversee everything.
In 2004, the Columbia-area store had to close temporarily while the building it occupied was demolished and replaced with a larger building. Right around that time, Westside Market opened another store on 7th Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets, replacing a sad Gristedes that had been there for a while. I was quite excited when I saw the signage go up, as I had fond memories of the Morningside Heights store from my days in graduate school at Columbia in the 80’s. This store, like the others, has its own kitchen where all the food is prepared. By now Maria was travelling around to all the stores to inspect the kitchens and make sure that the food was being cooked correctly.
With everyone enjoying Maria’s food so much, customers often asked her why she didn’t write a cookbook. However, as Maria explained, the problem was that she did not really have recipes, or rather, they were in her head, so creating a cookbook with the store’s recipes would be a large project. She did have 20 Greek recipes from her mother, and other items that she cooked at the store came from friends’ recipes or other recipes she would find in books, but usually she would read a recipe, figure out what was wrong with it, and then tinker with it until it tasted the way she wanted it to.
Maria persevered, and after three years, the book is done. Maria spent time on Lefkada with a photographer, so that the book is filled with beautiful pictures of the island and of the food. There are over 175 recipes, most of them Greek, but others not, like Lasagna and Jerk Chicken with Coconut Rice and Peas and, of course, the Cheesecake (which has apparently sold over a million slices since its arrival in the store). I was surprised to see a recipe for Melomakarona (spiced Greek cookies) which are a favorite of mine, but not known to most Americans. I complained to Maria that I had never seen them for sale at Westside Market, and she pointed them out to me at the Morningside Heights store (and gave me a box to take home), but unfortunately I have still not found them at the Chelsea store.
Her cookbook will be released on October 16th, but Westside Market customers can purchase a copy now in the stores at a special price. It may seem strange that Maria decided to write a cookbook when she knows that what has made her “Maria’s Homemade” offerings successful is that people don’t cook much anymore. But she feels it is important for people to cook as food is something that brings families together, and she hopes that her cookbook will do just that.
And unlike other supermarkets that are struggling, Westside Market is doing well and expanding. There are currently five locations in Manhattan with more coming soon. It is still very much a family business: two of Maria and John’s children oversee the stores as well as a son-in-law and a nephew. And they are all passionate about food, something which is obvious when you shop there.