Avli the Little Greek Kitchen
2449 Jerusalem Ave., North Bellmore
SERVICE: Friendly and behind a counter
AMBIENCE: Narrow, noisy takeout spot with a slim eat-in counter and a few stools; take food to go.
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday noon to 8 p.m.; difficult for wheelchairs; limited parking; delivery within a four-mile radius
Some takeout makes you want to tear into the bag before you get home. By that measure, Avli the Little Greek Kitchen excels. As soon as you load your food into the car, a pungent garlicky aroma rolls from spit-roasted meats and tzatziki through layers of foil, paper and plastic.
At Avli, a slim takeout spot new to North Bellmore, the kitchen uses plenty of garlic — in marinades, in gyros and souvlaki, in the Greek meatballs called keftedakia. In fact, co-owner Gianni Torto keeps licorice-like ouzo candies on the counter for those who want to neutralize their breath post-lunch.
This Avli is the third in a string of Greek-food eateries first opened by Taso Koukounas in Bayside, Queens, 12 years ago. The original Avli is an 80-seat cafe; two subsequent satellites, including one in West Hempstead, are a sliver of that size, shoehorning the same robust Greek taverna menu into a takeout format.
Torto started as a delivery driver for the Bayside Avli when he was 17 and worked his way up to manager and, now, co-owner of his own location (with partner Dennis Manolatos). The Jerusalem Avenue spot is not much more than an ordering counter, a tiny kitchen and a slim eat-in counter with a few stools; food is prepared fast and you’ll want to take it to go, or get curbside delivery.
Despite Avli’s spartan looks, its food is concentrated and rich, and not entirely cooked from scratch. Some is prepped in West Hempstead and cooked here — for instance, giant, slightly soggy wedges of spinach pie (spanakopita) overstuffed with spinach, scallions and leeks, plus a ballast of feta and dill. Or the plush tzatziki, Greek yogurt, garlic and more dill blended with sour cream for extra tang. The thick, charred-edge, almost husky pita bread comes from Astoria’s Oasis Café; the meat for gyro and donor kebab is purchased from a supplier and cooked here on vertical spits. That robustly seasoned (and garlic-heavy) gyro is composed of ground beef and lamb, and shaved into curls that can be on the dry side. Ditto for the chicken doner, all crispy edges and pepper, though cooked to toughness in places. Both gyro and doner can be ordered as a straight-up appetizer (a total meat fest); in a wrap or pita with tzatziki, romaine and fresh, juicy tomatoes; or on a platter with the excellent lemon potatoes, tart puffy wedges that soak in any nearby juices.
For souvlaki, which can come solo, on a skewer or in a pita, the kitchen marinates cubes of pork (or chicken) in olive oil, mustard, red onions, garlic and herbs. More so than the spit-roasted meats, souvlaki stays succulent and a single skewer is a luscious snack. Also superb is the falafel, whose crisp edges shatter to soft, herbed-up innards, and slathered with tahini in a pita is one of the best falafel sandwiches around.
Avli does plenty of catering, and kopanisti is the consummate get-the-party-started dip — a whip of feta with jalapeño peppers that’s thick and smearable, stained bright from roasted red peppers and prickling with heat. Avli’s dense hummus more demure, heavy on the tahini and, puzzlingly, light on garlic. (Pro tip: Though they’re not on the menu, the kitchen will fry up pita chips to use with dips.) Stuffed grape leaves, aka dolmades, are petite, pliable, vinegary and filled with dewy rice.
Because Avli is primarily takeout, some dishes may suffer during the passage home. Salads sport praiseworthy sheep's-milk feta and fresh tomatoes, though the romaine of a maroulosalata wilted quickly. Greek meatballs (keftedakia) — misshapen, fried balls of ground beef — pack plenty of peppery flavor but were parched to Sahara-like levels. Some things fare better: A skirt steak soaked in peppery marinade and seared to perfection; garides sti skara — bronzed shrimp cooked in their shells with olive oil, white wine and paprika that are like zesty sea candy. And avgolemono — a tart, cream lemon soup thick with clumps of shredded chicken.
Avli offers but two desserts, gargantuan slices of respectable baklava among them. Soon, though, Torto plans to open a European-style bakery a few doors down; if it mirrors the service and speed and overall quality of Avli, it will be a space to watch.