LOWELL -- Thirty-five years ago Greek grocery stores, tailor shops and social clubs thrived in Lowell's Acre neighborhood, once home to one of the largest Greek communities in the country outside Chicago.
It was then that Socrates Tingas and Peter Cocalis opened the Olympia Restaurant, catering to a taste among the locals for authentic home cooking at reasonable prices. Most of the Acre's Greeks have moved to fancier neighborhoods or the suburbs. But when services get over at either Holy Trinity or Transfiguration Greek Orthodox churches nearby, the crowds still head to the Olympia for the predictably delicious food.
The menu has hardly changed in 35 years, Cocalis said. The more-than- reasonable prices make you wonder how the Olympia can offer such good food, the linen table cloths and napkins that give the place a touch more elegance than the typical neighborhood restaurant.
My husband and I have dined many times here, most recently with a couple of Greek-American friends who added their insight into subtleties of authentic Greek dishes. The waitress brought us a basket of fresh bread to enjoy while we waited only a few minutes for the appetizers. We ordered a plate of Greek cheese and olives ($2.75), shrimp cocktail ($5.95), and a bowl of egg-lemon soup ($1.75).
We didn't order one this night, but the Greek salads here ($2.75) are among the best you will find with crisp lettuce, onions, wedges of tomatoes, tangy olives, feta cheese, herbs and light vinegar and oil dressing. The calamata olives with pits were pleasantly salty, a tasty accompaniment to the feta cheese, which was moist and appropriately crumbly. The shrimp cocktail included seven large shrimp draped over a bowl of cocktail sauce on a bed of lettuce. The shrimp tasted fresh but could have been chilled better. The egg- lemon soup, a thin broth with ample rice, had just enough lemon flavor. Our friends' say that egg lemon is the chicken soup of the Greeks and that some homemade versions are thicker.
For entrees, we ordered three lamb dishes and a vegetable plate for the vegetarian among us. Broiled lamb on a stick, Olympia style, ($9.95) was a generous portion of tender chunks of lamb marinated in garlic, oregano and olive oil and served with mixed Greek vegetables and rice.
The oriental style lamb on a stick (also $9.95) comes with peppers, tomatoes, onions and rice.
Baked lamb with rice, ($6.95) was a tasty, average-sized portion of fall- off-the-bone tender lamb served with a heaping side order of moist, tasty rice topped with a light Greek-style tomato sauce.
Possibly the best deal at the Olympia is the baked fresh vegetable plate ($4.95), a meal in itself. Prepared with the Greek-style tomato sauce, everything on the plate is cooked to a delightful melt-in-your mouth tenderness. The generous portion contained a large chunk of potato, buttery lima beans, green beans, celery and cabbage, along with perfectly cooked rice. In season, you might get grape leaves with this dish.
The roast shoulder of lamb ($8.95) was deemed excellent, very tasty and tender. We ordered ours with a garnish of the same vegetables that show up on the baked vegetable plate.
For dessert we ordered an obligatory slice of baklava ($1.75), a sweet, nutty concoction not for the calorie conscious. It had a generous amount of ground walnuts, laced with honey and layered between delicate leaves of filo, light Greek pastry.
Two of us tried a slice of the Galactobourico ($1.50), a sweet, smooth custard dessert between a top and bottom layer of filo. If you can't pronounce it, just ask the waitress for the custard dessert.
While lamb is without question the Olympia's meat specialty, the menu also includes broiled chicken shishkebob ($10.95) and beef tenderloin on the stick ($14.95). For those who favor seafood, try shrimp scampi ($10.95), broiled schrod ($10.95), fried squid ($9.95) or broiled swordfish ($10.95). Other Greek side dish specialties include pastitsio ($4.95), a Greek lasagna with macaroni and ground meat, spinach pie ($4.95), and moussaka ($4.95), layered eggplant, ground meat and bechamel sauce.
Delighted by our meals, we were amazed by the final bill. Our dinner for four with before-dinner drinks, appetizers, entrees, dessert and coffee came to $74.80 with tip. Great food. Great prices.