Every October, Savannah lines up outside St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church for the congregation's annual food festival. By the end of the three-day event, there isn't a crumb of filo dough in sight, the trays of hand-crafted moussaka and baklava sold out for another year.
It’s enough to make a Hellenistic foodie cry.
Stathy Stathopoulos doesn’t want any tears shed over the lack of authentic Greek baked goods around here. After hearing for years that folks want their tsoureki sweet bread fix more often, the Savannah native and his wife, Penny, recently opened Yia Yia’s Kitchen at the corner of Habersham and 49th streets in Ardsley Park.
They own the mixed-use brick building, and after renting it out over the years to other businesses, they decided to make a go of their own culinary venture.
“I see cupcake shops, cookie places...why not Greek pastries?” asks the jolly Stathy.
Yia Yia’s—which takes its name from the endearing term for a Greek grandmother—imports its desserts from the famous Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs, FL, one of the oldest and largest Greek expatriate communities in the United States.
Rather than “reinvent the wheel,” Stathy says serving as a vendor for Hellas’ fresh-shipped wares is the way to provide authenticity and consistency.
“The whole idea was to get the very best and bring it here,” he explains.
The cozy corner store displays in its glass case a lavish assortment of Hellas’ traditional Greek goodies: Fluted flogeres dripping with honey. Sugar-dusted kourabiethes and delicate kataifi, shaped like miniature birds’ nests.
Most impressive are the giant diples, rolls of filo dough dipped in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and pecans.
“Even the Greeks can’t believe how big they are,” chuckles Stathy, though he confesses that the chewy almond crescent cookies are his favorite.
A retired safety manager at the Georgia Ports Authority, Stathy is no stranger to the sweets business. His great uncle emigrated from Greece to Savannah in 1903 to set up a candy store at the corner of Oglethorpe and Abercorn streets, where made his own bonbons and became known to the neighborhood kids as “Mr. Pete.”
During the 1950s and 1960s at Atlantic and 39th streets, Stathy’s parents’ ran their own palatable enterprise. The Welcome Inn was patronized by both adults and children looking for refreshment.
“One side was a blue collar bar, and the other side was a confectionary shop for the kids from Savannah High,” remembers Stathy, a first generation American. “During the day it was a real cheerful spot, and of course at night, it became something just for the grown-ups.”
Yia Yia’s is infused with a feeling for those days of yore as a steady stream of neighbors pop in for baklava platters, a box of koulouria twists or just a snack on their way home from church.
“People tell us they’re glad we’re open on Sundays, ‘cause no other bakery is!”
For those seeking satisfaction for the savory end of the palate, there are plenty of delicacies in Yia Yia’s small grocery and deli sections: Prepared trays of moussaka and pastitsio are ready to take home and pop in the oven. Fresh gyro fixings, including prepared meats, several varieties of Kalamata olives and hand-stretched pita, also make for an easy dinner.
There’s also a wall of imported Melissa orzo, Pegasus olive oil and Takana soups bearing Greek letters to stock your pantry.
Stathy promises that fresh Greek salads featuring local produce are coming. In the meantime, home cooks can recreate them with several varieties of imported feta cheese, including an exquisitely-flavored Bulgarian variety. For appetizers and snacks, the prepared “Feisty Feta” spread makes regular Southern pimento cheese dip seem rather pale.
Yia Yia’s also gave Stathy a reason to bring a young Greek cousin across the Atlantic. Hailing from the village of Kalavrita on the Peloponnese peninsula, Yiorges Karampoulis arrived in Savannah a year ago and was disappointed that the only time he could taste authentic diples and other tastes of home was at the three-day Greek festival. He’s delighted that he’s been put to work at Yia Yia’s, where those familiar flavors are now available all the time.
“I’m very satisfied—and surprised,” says Karampoulis, giving two thumbs up.
Then he gives the ultimate validation:
“They taste just like my mother’s!”
Stathy and Penny Stathopoulos import the best baklava, flogeres and kataifi in the country to Yia Yia's Kitchen.