Calling Papaspiros a little before noon last week, I asked “Do you serve flaming saganaki for lunch?” The answer was a somewhat beleaguered “Of course!” (which roughly translates to “Any other silly questions you’d like me to answer?”).
Although flaming saganaki is not listed on their online lunch menu, I should have assumed that Papaspiros would be serving it for lunch, as it’s as much a part of the Chicago area’s Greek restaurant experience as pita and gyros.
“Saganaki,” the shallow pan of cheese doused with brandy (Metaxa or Ouzo) and set on fire tableside, comes from the Greek word for a small pan with two handles: sagani. Foods cooked in this small pan become saganaki (-aki is a diminutive suffix in Greek, somewhat like the “y” of Davey or Danny). There are many types of saganaki, including scallop saganaki and shrimp saganaki (the latter also served at Papaspiros).
Pan-seared saganaki is traditional in Greece – and there’s evidence that European Greeks did, indeed, splash liquor on cheese before lighting it on fire. It was in Chicago, however, that flaming saganaki became a documented *thing,* with the flaming of the cheese and the accompanying “Opaa!” helping market the menu item to a crowded restaurant of revelers.
Petros Kogeones of the locally famous Dianna’s Opaa in Greektown has claimed that he and his family originated the flaming cheese, but In “Lost Restaurants of Chicago,” author Greg Borzo recognizes a competitor of Dianna’s Opaa, writing that “The bygone Parthenon…is widely credited with inventing in 1968 the flaming saganaki and ‘Opa’ custom.”
Chris Liakouras, owner of the Parthenon, was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “I invented saganaki in 1968. I was sitting here with three lady friends. We were talking about different things we could do. When a cheese dish was mentioned, one of the ladies said, ‘Why don’t you try flaming it?’”
Whoever started the tradition of the flaming cheese, there’s no doubt that flambéed cheese is how, in Chicago, hundreds of Greek dinners begin every evening.
In Greece, you would find lots of different types of cheese – including kasseri, feta, and halloumi – warmed up in a pan, much as the French might warm dishes of raclette. Relatively dry cheeses like kasseri are preferred because they don’t dry out or melt all over the place. These drier cheeses maintain their shape despite the hot pan and flaming finale.
Though saganaki is an expected starter to many Greek meals in Chicago, at places like relatively new Avli Taverna in Lincoln Park, a delicious version of the warmed cheese is served with peppered figs and honey…but no flames. At the Avli location in Winnetka, however, which opened over twelve years ago, they still flame the cheese. Old habits die hard, and it’s quite likely that many folks would be disappointed if the cheese was brought to them sans flames.
Menus at Greek restaurants in both Chicago and suburbs are usually almost identical to one another. There may be a house special in there, but the very popular standard offerings are generally all the same, from the saganaki to the gyros…which, incidentally, are usually cut from a pressed lamb/beef frustum that gyrates on a vertical grill, also invented in Chicago.
Saganaki is now the anticipated prelude to many Greek dinners in Chicago as well as Oak Park. Going to most Greek places like Papaspiros, we get just what we’d expect…and that’s exactly what we want.