When people ask me for a restaurant recommendation, my answer is always the same: Esperia Grill. First date? Esperia Grill. Friends in from out of town? Esperia Grill. Family-friendly? Esperia Grill. A place that is suitable for carnivores and vegetarians alike? Esperia Grill.
On the face of things, it’s just a family-run Greek kouzina in the Brighton part of Allston-Brighton, where we live. It used to be a fairly standard Greek House of Pizza (it seems every town in Massachusetts has one), until one day the owners, Tim and Georgia, decided to add their own Greek recipes and start table service. As a former takeout spot, the counter is prominent; the restaurant shares its miniscule parking lot and bathroom with the Dunkin’ Donuts next door.
It looks like nothing special, but the food, oh boy, the food. I first discovered it because I’m always on the lookout for Greek restaurants that serve the garlicky potato dip skordalia. It’s my Greek restaurant litmus test. There are just a handful of places in town that do make it, but Esperia tops them all. (Our cat agrees; he jumps up on the table when we have it in the house and licks the lid clean.)
When our friends Russ and Marisa come in from Brooklyn, they now insist on going there. Rich once brought his boss and a pretty famous urban planner from New York City after an interview at WGBH, which is just down the hill. When Sylvie comes in for a visit from DC, the two of us always go there. We don’t even have a visit. We just sit in silence and enjoy each bite. It takes a lot to render the Shaffer sisters speechless, but Esperia does it, every time.
And don’t forget to get a salad. Their dressing is so good that they now bottle the stuff. Rich loves their baked lamb shank special; you can smell the cinnamon and spice as it wafts around the table. I usually stick to the cold appetizer platter which serves at least two people. I always get the skordalia, and I’ll rotate the other three with maybe the tarmasalata, tzatziki, grapes leaves. Even the hummus and falafel is great, which I found surprising in a Greek place.
As a family place, they are closed on Sundays, and every July they take off two weeks to visit family in Greece. So last week, when I had a hankering for Esperia but knew they were on vacation, I made do in my own kitchen. It was too hot to make their lemony potatoes (I’ve started to use this recipe as a blueprint), but I had green beans in the house from the CSA so I decided to braise them in tomato sauce like they do for my second-favorite Esperia side.
My beans were a bit tougher and wider than green beans — I think they call them Romano beans — so a little braise to soften them was necessary. I found this recipe in a Marcella Hazan cookbook. I know, I know. She is Italian, as is this recipe, and I wanted Greek, but it’s close enough and definitely worth sharing. In fact, when I was on the phone with Sylvie and said I had to go and braise some green beans in tomato, she said, “Ooh, like at Esperia”. Yes, exactly.
You can serve these beans on their own, but Marcella says they can also be served as a pasta dish; she suggests penne or rigatoni, although I honestly can’t imagine it that way. Her recipe calls for either fresh, ripe tomatoes or canned Italian peeled plum tomatoes, cut up with their juices. The first time I made this, I actually had a very small container of premade Pomi sauce – made with just plain tomatoes – leftover from a summer squash pizza Rich grilled for us. The second night I used all of a 28 oz. can of plum tomatoes and cut them up over the pan with kitchen shears. Be sure to wear an apron because things can get very messy.
Post Script: Boston Magazine just published their Best Of Boston Issue. Esperia Grill was voted Best Greek in Boston
Fagiolini con Pomodoro, Aglio e Basilico – Green Beans with Tomato, Garlic and Basil from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen
1 pound very ripe fresh tomatoes, or 1 cup canned Italian peeled plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice (1 ½ pounds fresh or 1 ½ cups canned if using as a pasta sauce)
1 ½ pounds green beans
½ cup extra virgin olive oil (plus 2 Tablespoons if using as a pasta sauce)
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped not too fine (1 Tablespoon if using as a pasta sauce)
Black pepper in a grinder
1 cup fresh basil leaves
If using fresh tomatoes, rinse them in cold running water and drop them into a pot of boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, cook for about a minutes, then drain and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel them and cut them up in large pieces.
Snap off the ends of the green beans and rinse the beans in cold water.
Choose a sauté pan with a lid that can later accommodate all the green beans. Put in the olive oil and garlic. Turn on the heat to medium and sauté the garlic until it becomes colored a pale gold.
Add the tomatoes, turn up the heat, and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes.
Add the green beans, turn down the heat to medium, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the green beans are tender but firm. (It should take less than 30 minutes from start to finish for this dish.) If, when the beans are done, the juices in the pan are watery, remove the beans with a slotted spoon or spatula, turn up the heat, and boil away excess liquid. Then return the beans to the pan, mix in in the basil leaves, and serve.
Note: If using this as a pasta sauce, do not add the basil to the pan. When the pasta is cooked and drained, toss with the beans and all the contents of the pan, add the basil leaves, toss again, sprinkle with the extra 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and serve immediately.