Not many Arizonans know about the St Anthony’s Monastery in Florence. But in 1995 six monks arrived in the southern Arizona desert to establish this beautiful retreat bringing with them this sacred, millennial heritage of the Holy Mountain, Athos. Is there a connection to when Mt Athos Restaurant opened about 10 years ago? You'll have to ask the congenial host Pete Koulouris who continues the family tradition brought to Florence from New York City from his father George. Pete is no stranger to the food business having started at the early age of 10. With him comes a legacy of traditions and recipes not found in these parts.
Florence is fortunate to have both the Monastery and Mt Athos Restaurant call this home. We lucked out.
My journey starts out at lunch one day in the heat of this summer. My wife Diane and I are big fans of Greek food coming from Chicago and having “Greektown” conveniently close. Greek foods are not an acquired taste in my opinion as many other ethnic foods are. Greek food to me is the essence of great flavors, smells and textures combined to please the palate. Mediterranean to be sure but the spices and subtlety’s can vary from different regions in Greece much like in Italy, India, or Asia in general.
What’s unique about Pete’s menu is although they have mastered the Greek foods they serve, they offer typical American and Italian dishes that I've heard are top-notch. But, today is Greek day for us. Jenn was our friendly server who is a teacher in Florence and comes from the Bronx close to where Pete and his family were from. Her accent is obvious but she said so was mine from the Midwest. We were treated like royalty and I suspect that’s the way everyone else gets treated.
Got to start off with Saganaki (Flaming Cheese) traditionally made with sheep’s milk cheese melted in a small frying pan until it's bubbly and ignited when doused with liquor to form this fireball. The Parthenon in Chicago lays claim to inventing this which is where we traditionally go when back home. Served with pita bread it’s a great start to a meal especially with some Roditys wine.
Can’t have the main course until you have a real Greek salad and some Avgolemono soup. Mt Athos offers different kinds of Greek salads.We picked the Village salad with tomatoes, onions, green peppers, cucumber, kalamata olives and great feta cheese. Served with a Greek style dressing with oregano. One of the best we've had and wiped the plate clean. They made homemade soups daily but the Avgolemono is a traditional Greek chicken based soup with pieces of chicken, rice and lemon. Very good and a cup just enough.
In order to try different things, Diane ordered the Gyros Platter which comes with a generous portion of Gyros meat, rice, pita bread, Tzatziki sauce and a side of cinnamon glazed carrots. All excellent. Tzatziki can be quite different from place to place. I love to make this at home with yogurt, garlic and cucumbers but Pete makes his with a blend of sour cream and yogurt which we both loved. That’s how I’ll make mine in the future.
With so many great looking things on the menu I asked Pete to make me a platter of mixed meats. He was happy to oblige with this tremendous plate of Baked Lamb shank, Pork and Chicken Souvlaki (kabobs), and Gyro’s. Everything was outstanding. Perfectly seasoned, not overcooked. The Lamb Shank was the bomb. Braised with vegetables in a red wine and tomato sauce infused with allspice.
As if that weren't enough ... Pete said you're not leaving without some Galak. I said “saywhat?” Greek Galaktoboureko. A soft semolina milk custard wrapped in Phyllo dough with a honey syrup glaze. We shared one because I wasn't passing up a taste of Greek pastries which is a whole nuther story. Now I know why they used to wear those big white robes ... need room to expand.
All in all it was a very delightful meal and we're looking forward to trying many other dishes on the menu but not all at one time.
Even though many names on the menu are long and hard to pronounce, Pete’s hospitality and passion for serving great food shines through. Not sure what to order? Just ask Pete or one of the helpful servers and you can't go wrong.
Mt Athos Restaurant
444 N. Pinal PKWY.
Florence AZ. 85132
OPEN MON-SAT 9AM-9PM