There are about 3,000 Greek islands.
Add one more.
In the last few years, Long Island has had a boomlet in Greek restaurants, from the palatial to the humble. Credit the Mediterranean diet. Or maybe all those brilliant images of sun-bleached white buildings and impossibly blue waters.
For reasons big and small, for dishes as varied as pricey whole grilled fish and inexpensive gyros, this island now hosts many Greeks bearing gifts -- the tasty kind.
Here's a quick odyssey to some of our favorite eateries.
1060 Rte. 25A, Mount Sinai
FOOD 2 1/2 stars
ON THE MENU This country-style restaurant, warm and welcoming, offers accommodating service and an unpretentious approach. Recommended: the assortment of Greek spreads, grilled octopus, Greek meatballs; generous Greek salad; gigantes, or giant lima beans in red sauce; a well-seasoned moussaka, with chopped sirloin, eggplant and potatoes under béchamel sauce; pastitsio, also with sirloin and béchamel; oven-baked lamb; grilled whole snapper and porgy; and juicy steaks, from porterhouse to sirloin, filet mignon, rib-eye and skirt. Also: pita sandwiches. Dandelion greens and lemon potatoes go with everything.
FOOD 11/2 stars
ON THE MENU Athéna, a veteran "country Greek" establishment, emphasizes the simple and the good, sending out satisfying, first-rate moussaka for almost two decades. It has a 40-seat niche in the little Amity Mall. The kitchen prepares plenty of takeout, too. Also recommended: the familiar Greek spreads with warm triangles of pita, taramasalata, baba ghanoush, sweet sausage sauteed with mushrooms and tomatoes, flaky spanakopita, Greek salad, a vegetarian version of moussaka, lamb shish kebab, and either baklava or apricot cake with coconut icing for dessert.
25 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck
FOOD 2 stars
ON THE MENU Sleek Ethos is the offspring of Astoria and Manhattan eateries. It's a pleasant, straightforward place, and a tasty introduction to the cuisine. Recommended: marinated, roasted beets with skordalia, the potato-and-garlic dip; spanakopita, a flaky spinach pie; grilled octopus, given some tang with red-wine vinegar, and the combination plate of grilled octopus, shrimp and squid; fried red mullets; center-cut swordfish; and whole grilled fish, led by red snapper, sea bream, porgy and striped bass. To conclude: yogurt with honey and walnuts; or galaktoboureko, semolina custard in phyllo.
354 Larkfield Rd., East Northport
FOOD 2 stars
ON THE MENU The namesake specialty of this ultracasual spot is house-made gyro, either pork or chicken doner (done with marinated meat stacked on a spit and then sliced) or the meatloaf-like pork and lamb version. Skewered marinated pork, chicken and filet mignon ooze savory juices; a choriatiki salad of tomatoes, cucumber and parsley is colorful and refreshing. Both the tender grilled octopus and charcoaled calamari are worthy of praise, as is the lush pastitsio (Greek lasagna) and moussaka (eggplant and potato casserole). Galaktoboureko tops everything off.
5145 Main Rd. (Route 25), East Marion
631-477-0138, the hellenic.com
FOOD 1 1/2 stars
ON THE MENU The Hellenic Snack Bar marks Long Island's easternmost source of stuffed grape leaves and moussaka. Keep going and your next stop is somewhere in the Aegean. The Hellenic has been in business since 1976, serving dependable Greek fare and more. No pretense, no nonsense, family-friendly. Recommended: those stuffed grapes leaves, grilled haloumi cheese, Greek salads, grilled porgy and grilled fluke, moussaka, pastitsio, beef-and-rice stuffed peppers and tomatoes, baked or stewed leg of lamb, avgolemono soup, sandwiches, burgers, baklava, galaktoboureko and kataifi, or phyllo-wrapped nuts with honey.
1043 Northern Blvd., Roslyn
FOOD 2 1/2 stars
ON THE MENU Limani certainly is the most imposing of Long Island's Greek restaurants, a grand and grandiose modern temple, heavy on marble, with high-roller style and first-class service. Recommended: fish broth with vegetables and cuts of grouper; the fried zucchini-fried eggplant combo appetizer; Greek salads; oysters; pan-fried kefalograviera cheese; grilled octopus; and whole grilled fish for two, sold by the pound, including red fagri, red snapper, black sea bass; and for one, including Dover sole and arctic char. Very good baklava and walnut spongecake. An elaborate Sunday brunch is offered at $50 a person.
1363 Old Northern Blvd., Roslyn
FOOD 3 1/2 stars
ON THE MENU Manhattan star chef Michael Psilakis gifts his native Long Island with this casual Greek gastro pub, uniting the innovative with the traditional. Standouts are more or less the rule. There's the tender, lemon-kissed octopus, the supernal meatballs in a tomato and olive sauce, a salad of dried fruits, cheese and young greens. Dumplings with lamb sausage can be poetry. And you owe yourself a taste of the herbal lamb burger. Conclude with apple baklava, galaktoboureko parfait or the opulent chocolate brownie made with halvah.
273 Main St., Huntington
FOOD 2 stars
ON THE MENU The colors of the Aegean Sea, sand and sky define this hospitable relative newcomer. You'll want to check out the showcase filled with whatever whole fish and meat chef-owner Alex Moschos is featuring on a given day. A meal might begin with tender, smoky, lemony grilled octopus. Or spinach pie, flaky and light. Don't miss the grilled whole fish (the porgy is a standout), the signature item. Greek meatballs are moist and savory. Finish with galaktoboureko, phyllo-wrapped vanilla pudding.
FOOD 2 stars
ON THE MENU This cozy, casual eatery is all about comfort, whether in terms of food or tab. A bright gratis chickpea salad starts the meal. Smoky grilled octopus feeds at least two. Whole grilled fish, usually the hallmark of more expensive places, offers amazing value. Recently, a whole grilled porgy proved outstanding, crisp skin overlaying sweet meat. Also recommended: the rich pastitsio and moussaka, the superior spinach pie. For dessert, don't miss super-waitress Barbara Strathos' house-made ekmek, honey syrup-soaked shredded wheat crowned with clouds of freshly whipped cream and walnuts. Copious portions mean doggy bags.
1446 Old Northern Blvd., Roslyn, 516-625-2600
FOOD 3 stars
ON THE MENU The two branches of Trata are handsome, full-flavored restaurants, with lively personalities and food to match. Both immediately get your attention with displays of fresh seafood, including Greek imports. Excellent service, too. Recommended: traditional Greek spreads such as taramasalata with roe and melitzanosalata with eggplant; marinated beets, grilled octopus, grilled whole sardines wrapped in grape leaves, braised lamb shank; and charcoal-grilled whole fish, priced by the pound, especially red fagri, loup de mer and royal dorado.
THE DINER PUZZLE
The Greeks' greatest contribution to the Long Island dining scene has virtually nothing to do with Greek cooking. Rather, it is the establishment and operation of that most ubiquitous of eateries, the diner.
The diner opens early and closes late (it may even be open all night) and serves enormous portions of a vast range of foods. Breakfast all day, veal Marsala, cheeseburgers, chef salad, broiled scrod, roast turkey with gravy and stuffing, navy bean soup, Black Forest cake, a can of sardines, Salisbury steak.
But the Greek diner may not be the best place to sample Greek cooking. Helen Georgatos, who owns Commack's Premier Diner with her husband, Peter, and brother Charles Kyriacou, explained that the average diner's commitment to a large menu can work against the ability to highlight the owner's native cuisine. "If you're going to serve real Greek food," she said, "you have to sell a lot of it every day. That tray of moussaka needs to be fresh."
Nevertheless, most Long Island diners evince an unmistakable Hellenism, from the standard lineup of "Greek specialties" -- souvlaki, moussaka, pastitsio -- to the Greek-key-bordered paper place mats.
Kathy Boulukos of Freeport, a historian of the Greek-American experience and the editor of the Recipe Club of St. Paul's Orthodox Cathedral's "Complete Book of Greek Cooking" (William Morrow, $21.99), could not think of one diner on Long Island that is not owned by Greeks. (Neither could Helen or Peter Georgatos.) It's safe to say Greek Americans dominate the local diner scene.
Boulukos explained that Greek immigrants had been active in the food industry almost since they first arrived in America. "Food service was a good fit for hardworking people who didn't speak much English," she said.
Many of these newcomers started out with pushcarts and candy stands, and then moved on to ice-cream parlors and coffee shops. Those modest coffee shops evolved into the sprawling diners that now dot the suburban landscape. Diner busboys became diner cooks and then diner owners. And they hired their cousins who followed them to the New World.
Both Georgatoses see changes in the future of the Greek diner. Helen has been the force behind trimming the Premier's menu and upgrading the food quality. "Diners are restaurants," she said. "They need to serve good, fresh food." Peter wondered whether the children of today's diner owners will want to stay in the business. "Our kids, they are going to college, getting educated. I can see the diner getting out of Greek hands." -- Erica Marcus