Is there a more popular salad on Long Island than the Greek? It graces the menus of Greek restaurants both exalted and humble, but is also a fixture at hundreds of local diners, bistros and more than a few pizzerias.
Popular, yes, but also misunderstood. All too often, Greek salad on Long Island is an unholy marriage of overdressed iceberg lettuce, underripe tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, pickled peppers and way too much crumbled feta (or a cheese posing as feta).
There often will be a log or two of stuffed grape leaves weighing down the lighter elements. For a few dollars more, you may well be given the option of further desecrating the salad by topping it with strips of chicken breast or some other "protein."
Most egregiously, it almost always lacks what is arguably the most important element of any Greek salad: delicious, pungent, fruity, Greek extra-virgin olive oil. The oil isn't there to lubricate the vegetables, it is there to flavor them.
I feel certain that every time a Greek salad is dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, Homer spins in his grave.
In Greece, the birthplace of civilization, you will find exactly two green salads on almost every restaurant menu: horiatiki salata and maroulosalata.
Horiatiki salata (country or village salad) is what you get if you ask, in English, for "Greek salad." It is tomato, cucumber and green pepper, maybe some scallions or red onion sprinkled with dried oregano and drizzled with olive oil. On top of this there may well be a slab of feta cheese. There could be one black olive wedged into the cheese, or a few situated around the plate. You might get half a lemon. You will not get vinegar.
You want lettuce? You must order lettuce salad, maroulosalata. Maroulo is Greek for romaine, and when I was in Greece a few years ago, I saw nothing but romaine, nor was it ever torn or served as whole leaves. It was neatly shredded into ribbons anywhere from 1/2 to 3/8 inch thick. Sometimes there would be some thinly sliced scallions for good measure. The fanciest maroulosalata I had also had chopped fresh dill. Dressing? Olive oil, and squeeze your own lemon.
For better or worse, we are not in Greece. I've made my peace with veal Parmesan and clams casino -- two dishes you will never find in Italy. So perhaps it is time for me to extend the olive branch to the Greek-American salad.
The best Greek salads on Long Island
After baklava and moussaka, the likeliest dish you'll find at a Greek restaurant is, of course, the Greek salad.
What goes into the bowl, however, often differs across Long Island, where lettuce is as common as it is rare in the Greek salad you'll find in Athens.
ALEXANDROS, Mount Sinai: Alexandros offers three variations on Greek salad. Horiatiki ($9), or country salad, includes tomato, onion, cucumber, olives and feta cheese but no greens. The Elliniki ($9), takes in lettuce, tomatoes, feta, cucumber, stuffed grapes leaves, pepperoncini and olives. And the maroulosalata ($8) contains romaine lettuce, feta, dill and scallions.
1060 Rte. 25A; 631-928-8600, alexandrosrestaurant.com
KYMA, Roslyn: At Kyma, the new Greek restaurant in Roslyn Village, the menu's classic horiatiki salad is titled "tomato" ($14), and even out of season, this star ingredient is deep red and full of flavor. The tomatoes -- as well as sweet onions, cucumbers and green bell peppers -- are chopped to order, then plated with Kalamata olives, extra-virgin olive oil from Laconia (in the Greek Peloponnese), red wine vinegar and slabs of barrel-aged Dodonis feta cheese. The "green" salad ($13) is a traditional maroulasalata with hearts of romaine, scallions, Arahova feta (it crumbles better) and olive oil.
1446 Old Northern Blvd.; 516-621-3700, kyma-roslyn.com
RELISH, Kings Park: What chef Steve Cardello calls a classic "diner style" Greek salad ($5.99 small; $9.99 large) surpasses what's served at most Greek diners on Long Island. So, too, does the restaurant, with its diner-like exterior. Cardello draws on what's local and seasonal when possible, combining bright red tomatoes (hothouse now, locally grown later), cucumbers, feta cheese, stuffed grape leaves, pepperoncini and olives over lettuce -- usually romaine -- in a simple, perfect lemon-olive oil dressing.
2 Pulaski Rd.; 631-292-2740, relishkingspark.com
GYROLICIOUS, Jericho and East Meadow: Vibrant produce elevates the Greek salads at these casual Long Island siblings. A traditional Greek horiatiki salad ($7.95 small; $9.95 large) combines tomato, cucumber, onion, Kalamata olives and feta cheese with a simple olive oil dressing. The Americanized -- but very good -- green Greek salad ($5.95 small; $7.95 large) features romaine, cabbage, shredded carrots, cucumber, red onion, diced tomatoes, stuffed grape leaves, olives and pepperoncini in an olive oil-balsamic dressing.
Restaurant picks by Peter M. Giannoti, Erica Marcus and Joan Reminick.