Math problem: For a restaurant you’ve “discovered” to thrive economically, and thereby maintain the qualities you loved about it in the first place, it needs to attract a certain threshold of other customers to also “discover” it in order to stay open just for you—but not too many as to make it hard to get a table or excellent service. (Let's call this golden mean the Telly's Taverna Variable.) As a practical matter, to hit this number correctly, one should aim to a) praise said restaurant liberally, but not widely; b) i.e., make sure the stolid and the ‘only eat out once a month’ crowd hear your liberal praise; and c) especially if there were foodies and/or journalists in earshot make up lies like, “oh, the charcoal helped a bit, but I missed three days of work and had hallucinations.”
My first decade in New York City was lived in Astoria, Queens, a place of many Greeks, and that enclave is imprinted upon me permanently. For New York to be whole and true the colors blue and white should be all over and general; priests should have resplendent beards and long black tunics; cars should simply stop in the middle of streets and call it “parking”; there should be prayer beads in everybody’s hands, worried constantly on an elevated train line. And all food should taste like the fish at Telly’s Taverna on 23rd Avenue. (I realize I'm toying with the Variable by merely mentioning it; perhaps it should be called Telly’s Paradox.)
New York food writers, when they can be bothered to stay on the N-train to Astoria all the way to the end, have tended to head to a restaurant called Elias’ Corner for fish—I don't know why. I ate there once, and I'm sure it was fine; I forget. Of course, I'm delighted that's where they go: their efforts maintain Telly’s Taverna Variable without me having to lift a finger. But every bite of red snapper at Elias’ is, in my mind, fatally up against the mere aroma of the open grill at Telly’s, a few blocks away on 23rd Avenue.
The secret to the place, though, is Nana Momma, as we and many others call her. Running the place with a rare passion, she sits by the street window each night holding court, singing the praises of your kids just because they are your kids. She squeals with delight when you enter, almost crying that “my beautiful girls!” (whom she saw but a month previously) have “grown so much I cry!” In the old days she would run to her car, abandoned as it was near the sidewalk, pop the trunk, and bring some toys into the restaurant for them. (This ritual has ended, now that my beautiful girls are older; plus, I live elsewhere. I miss those toys almost as much as I miss Nana Momma and Astoria.)
The great passions of this mini Greece, as embodied by Nana Momma and her restaurant, came back to me yesterday as I watched their soccer team play the Czech Republic at Euro 2012. At one point of the game, the Greek captain, Giorgos Karagounis, a 35-year-old midfielder, got a kick on the top of his head from Tomas Rosicky (Rosicky barely raised his boot; Karagounis is tiny). Instantly Karagounis plummeted to the turf and became a little red snapper, a hook firmly in his cheek, an invisible line held taut by his attacker: once prone, he concocted a wriggling, jerky, spastic “I'm a fish! I'm a fish! I'm a fish!” performance so over the top that I laughed out loud. He tumbled this way and that, screaming with one arm flung out as though pleading with invisible gods to put him out of his misery. It went on long enough that my laughter started to turn to panic—I imagined that once the paramedics arrived on scene (“Can't they hurry?” I yelled at the TV) they’d find bits of brain matter slipping between the Greek captain’s fingers. “There's nothing we can do,” I imagined they’d say, forlornly, looking down upon the once skillful, nippy playmaker, as his life ebbed away onto the fields of Wroclaw. Lines from Wilfred Owen poems jangled in my head—I was witnessing a man’s demise, right there on ESPN.
But you could tell he wasn't really hurt, just pissed he was short enough to have been kicked on the top of his head. In his ejaculations of pretend agony I could see a mirror of Nana Momma’s exhortations of true love, her larger-than-life proclamations about how wonderful my daughters are. She’s right about that, of course, but crucially she also thinks to say it, time and time again, and with such genuine feeling. Looking at Giorgos Karagounis continue to pretend he’d been shot in the head at close range with a Glock, I could see how such passion could become, in the hands of an over-paid, over-praised twerp, corrupted into pantomime.
Eventually Karagounis, all 5’9” of him (that’s what UEFA’s website says he is—he’s more like 4’9”), screeched and hollered all the way to the touchline, where his coaches and medics tried to calm him down, to no avail. His hatred of what had just happened to him seemed to have been transmuted into hatred of them; he kept putting his hand to his head and then showing those poor Greek tracksuits that he was not, in fact, bleeding nearly enough as he hoped. There was no golden mean for Karagounis: that amount of theatrics should have produced a certain amount of blood, but there was a graze at best, and he was forced to continue: the Telly’s Taverna Variable was not in play for him. The game continued, the Greeks lost and are most likely headed home, and somewhere in Astoria, Queens, Nana Momma is cooing over new babies, somebody else’s girls, rushing to her “parked” car for toys.