September 7, 2008

Eats: Lewiston House of Pizza

By Maggie Gill-Austern

The smell of gyros always makes me think of Greece.

One whiff and my mind starts conjuring whitewashed houses and narrow lanes suddenly opening onto hidden squares, taverna tables bedecked with candles and retsina, and feet away, the wine-dark sea.

Long before I'd ever had the chance to go there, a whiff of gyro could turn a mall parking lot into a village square, complete with black-clad yia-yias, granular coffee and serious young men slowly dancing the zeibekiko.

Unlike most vacation destinations - which tend to alternate charm with annoyance - Greece was even better in real life than in my imagination.

The air was clearer. The Aegean was an almost painfully gorgeous shade of green-blue in the sunshine. It turned an inky purple in the dark, reflecting the Christmas lights shimmering from taverna trellises. There were even some yia-yias to be seen.

And the food. My goodness, the food.

The thick Greek yogurt we had for breakfast, sweetened with honey and fruit, kept us going for hours. The lightly fried calamari, the delicate eggplant and the grilled fish served with tzatziki put us over the moon at dinner, and the chilled retsina lulled us into lingering for hours in the warm air, under vines and the starry sky.

But the gyros - they tasted of history. Fire-roasted lamb, seasoned with oregano, garlic and rosemary, wrapped in grilled flat bread slathered in thick yogurt spiced with lemon and garlic and mixed with cucumbers - there is no more perfect balm for the tired travelers spirit, nothing more fitting to fuel a hike up a hillside or a swim in the sea.

In Athens, you could smell them everywhere, carried on the wind from the food stalls in the crowded, low-slung Plaka all the way to the rarefied air at the top of the Acropolis.

And what scent calls up our common history better than meat cooked over flames? It has to be one of the most elemental smells on earth. Fire, meat, garlic and oregano that grows wild on the dry, rocky hillsides of the Mediterranean. It's a meal you could see hide- clad hunter-gatherers eating around a fire. Fast forward, and you can imagine Menelaus serving it to guests inside his megaron.

They tasted, if possible, better than they smell. In Athens we ate them fast, on the street, fighting the crowds. On Naxos, we ate them on a stone wall in the hora, under a gnarly old tree, and on Sifnos at the waterfront, baking in the sun.

Lewiston's Greek Festival is as close an approximation of Greece as, I think, it's possible to find - with the added benefit of it being in Maine, in English, and with people you know, and folks who will teach you dance.

But it only happens once a year.

Better than nothing, but still, just once a year.

Last August, pre-festival, some friends were over and someone mentioned the weeks ahead before gyros, retsina and bouzouki- strumming musicians.

There's always the gyros at Lewiston House of Pizza, someone else said.

I had never been there, and because sub shop gyros are usually, in my experience, sub-par as well, I ordered without any excitement.

A friend ordered extra tzatziki - I mention this so that you will, as well - and we gave the people at the shop our address. A half-hour later somebody knocked, and shortly thereafter the smell of Greece wafted through the door.

I sat still and just breathed in for a second.

Garlic. Spices - what were they? Oregano, rosemary, paprika and marjoram? Warm bread. Tzatziki.

They came Plaka-style, wrapped in tin foil. They were messy, hot and delicious.

I was in heaven.

They weren't quite the same as Greece, didn't carry quite the same punch (whether it was the atmosphere or the lamb, I'll never know) as the festival, but they were marvelous.

And for a long time, a gyro was all I'd order from the Lewiston House of Pizza, enamored as I was.

Then one day we went in for pizza - veggie with eggplant - and were won over by that, as well. Even some guests we had with us, who live in Europe and are used to the thin-crusted perfection of Italian thin-crust and fresh mozzarella, raved. The sauce was perfect, Helene said. The eggplant so good you could eat it for the rest of your life.

The crust was just the right thickness, said tiny Chiara. Can I have another piece?

So if you haven't been, you should go.

And if you're suffering post-festival blues, or just wishing you were in sun-drenched Naxos as the winter sets in, order a gyro with extra tzatziki.

Who knows? If you close your eyes and use some imagination while you eat, you might even hear some bouzouki.Tasty tidbits

What: Lewiston House of Pizza

Where: 95 Lincoln St., Lewiston

When: Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight.

Why: Great gyros and pizza.

Atmosphere: Very laid back - typical pizza parlor decor but with a nice patio on the roof when the weather's nice. Delivers locally.

Price: Middle-range - typical for pizza.

Call: 786-2020

Originally published by Staff Writer.

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