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Restaurant Tours: Greektown's wild man goes north



Everyone has a favorite Greektown restaurant--Santorini is hot these days, the Greek Islands and Parthenon still have their longstanding partisans. But there's general agreement that the strip's wildest personality is Petros Kogiones. He of the former Dianna's Opaa, the vast room done up like a Grecian village, who kissed about 85 percent of all the "ladies" and led his customers through acrobatic Greek dances, a water glass balanced on his head.

The closing of Dianna's Opaa in 1993 was viewed by some as a sign of Greektown's decline. The three-block stretch of South Halsted was once the center of a thriving Greek community of 30,000, served by as many as 35 nightclubs and dining spots. About eight traditional restaurants remain.

In the mid-60s virtually the entire community was uprooted to make space for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Many residents relocated to Lincoln Square, where a slew of new restaurants created New Greektown, but by the 80s that community dispersed as well.

Kogiones first appeared on the scene in 1961 when he took over the original Dianna's, a small family-run grocery store with a few tables offering what was then a unique dining experience. A few years later he opened the Opaa less than a block away, which played to packed houses for years. Lines were long on weekends and the proprietor passed among the throngs dispensing wine and ouzo to ease the wait.

No Grecian village this. It's all exposed brick walls, burnished wood, and high, skylit ceilings. There are two main dining rooms, the first with a handsome bar, the second with a narrow balcony where diners can look regally down on all the proceedings. Then there are a batch of private dining areas on the balcony level where you can hold anything from a tete-a-tete to a big party. There is still lively Greek music piped in, but it's strictly background; Petros does not dance, though his greeting is surely as effusive as ever.

The food, I am pleased to report, has actually improved.

Personally I can make a whole meal out of Greek appetizers, and I even met a few new ones here. There is, of course, saganaki ($4.25). There is a tangy taramosalata, the creamy spread made of fish roe whipped with lemon juice and olive oil ($4.75), one of my all-time favorites. There is a chunky version of eggplant salad I find a bit too vinegary ($4.25); the cold octopus salad has a better balanced dressing ($5.50).

There is a crisp and greaseless rendition of fried calamari ($5.75). But the dish that wins my heart is the broiled octopus--a dish made famous at Santorini--done with a nice char and touched with balsamic vinegar ($7.25).

New to me was a terrific dip called tyrosalata, made of feta and ricotta cheeses with pungent herbs, whipped smooth ($5.25). I also don't recall ever having had bourekakia, an elegant little baked phyllo pastry filled with rich kaseri cheese and thinly sliced ham ($6.25). We also sampled a winning melange of sauteed wild and domestic mushrooms bound by a gently flavored wine sauce that retained the essential mushroom flavor ($5.50).

If I were to pick out the best of this fine lot it would be the grilled octopus, taramosalata, mushrooms, and tyrosalata. You can pick your own favorites and have them make up a sampling plate.

It wouldn't be a Greek restaurant without grilled sea bass or snapper; we opted for the former. It was exquisitely done with the holy trinity of Greek seasonings--lemon, olive oil, and oregano--imparting a sunny flavor to the fish's delicate flesh (market priced, in this instance $18.95). We also got a special treat rarely found on local menus: fresh red mullet, a delicate but distinctively flavored small, somewhat bony fish, pan-fried whole, which must be tried if available ($14.95 market).

Kogiones also offered broiled quail, the tiny birds done with the trinity, though one was fairly tough ($16.95). The pork tigania, tender bits of pork tenderloin lightly stewed in a tart, assertive red wine sauce, satisfied our carnivorous cravings ($10.95).

The menu goes on to include peasant classics such as moussaka ($10.95), pastitsio ($9.95), and a wide range of pasta dishes (yes, Greeks make good use of spaghetti and its relatives), plus chicken, lamb, and steaks.

There is just enough Greektown spirit here to keep fans of the old neighborhood happy, and enough sophistication in the added dishes to win new Petros partisans.

Petros Dianna's, 1633 N. Halsted, is open Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 11 PM, Friday and Saturday to 1 AM. Call 642-8484.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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