I sat down to dinner last December with two old friends. John, Richard and I chose Little Italy not only because we love the food but because John and I used to work for the Gialopsoses, who opened the restaurant in 1984. Having dinner there was an amazing experience. Visiting with our old friends — taking in the familiar sights and sounds and smells — helped me to realize how much the family has grown on me since I left many years ago.
I met Spiros and PJ in the summer of 1994, when I was in need of work and Little Italy of servers. I had no inkling of what was in store for me. I have only a tiny bit of Mediterranean heritage (a bit of Bulgarian on my father’s side), but I am very much like Greeks and Italians when it comes to food. I partake of it with almost religious passion. I have never been a strongly disciplined person, and when I suddenly found myself spending 40 hours a week around Spiros’s cooking, I didn’t even put up a fight.
Spiros, rather than taking my enthusiasm for his food as a compliment, could only see the impact I was having on food costs. We had special ink pens with the name and phone number of the restaurant printed on them, along with the saying, “One bite and we gotcha!” He may not have realized how aptly this applied to his employees as well as his guests.
One night Spiros had me taste the spanakopita (spinach, feta cheese, onions and olive oil packed between layers of pastry, brushed with butter and baked to a golden brown). The appetizer hadn’t been selling well, but as Spiros had expected, it was so good that I started selling half a dozen of them every night. No doubt my guests saw the twinkle in my eye when I recommended it. The only problem was, now I was eating spanakopita all the time too. This was most problematic for Spiros’s line chef, whose responsibility it was to make it. Filo dough is very difficult to work with because it is extremely thin and breaks easily. A few weeks after Spiros had me try the appetizer, I was in the kitchen, dishing up a piece at the beginning of my shift. All of a sudden, I heard the line chef behind me, complaining loudly with a thick Greek accent:
“*&%$#, dude, every day you eat a &$%*#@ spanakopita.”
I have rarely met people with a greater capacity to bear with others’ shortcomings than the Gialopsos family. They forgave me for transgressions that would have cost me my job in most places, not out of weakness but humanity. It took me a long time to understand that they were operating from a traditional position. Their restaurant was like an extension of their home. Accordingly, they didn’t want their employees to be part of the restaurant equipment — they wanted them to be sort of like part of the family ― if they were willing.
One afternoon, I was moving too fast and swept a bucket of towel sanitizer onto the carpet. Spiros was walking by and complained about my carelessness. The area where the spill landed was already dingy and faded from similar accidents.
I was immediately on the defensive. This was a Saturday, and there was more work to be done than was ordinarily required to open for dinner. However, I had the same amount of time as usual — 30 minutes. Or so I thought. In reality, Spiros expected the opening server to come in a half hour early on Saturdays. I just hadn’t been informed of that. So instead, I was racing around like a lunatic, frustrated and amped up, right when Spiros started yelling at me.
I didn’t know that, in Greek culture, yelling is a fairy normal mode of expression. Greeks are passionate people. But since I hadn’t yet put this together, I was offended — particularly since I considered the sanitizer accident the fault of the clock, not my clumsiness.
I made the mistake of arguing with him, which Greeks consider disrespectful. Of course, to some extent, it is disrespectful anywhere to argue with your boss. But I was pushing Spiros’s buttons directly, which made him yell louder. Before long, we were both standing in the server station yelling at the top of our lungs. While all this was going on, PJ arrived at the restaurant and walked by us without so much as a sidelong glance.
I had never yelled at the person who signed my paychecks before. For all I knew, it was my last shift. But Spiros didn’t seem to mind. This was no shoving match. We were angry, but neither of us was dismissive. This was high-decibel communication. We were each making our boundaries known and expressing how we felt. It was a beautiful moment. Afterward, there was a feeling of greater mutual respect. Each of us had walked a step closer to the other.
Little Italy had humble beginnings. Spiros spent an entire year working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, saving every dollar that wasn’t nailed down. At the end of that year, he took everything he had saved and bought the building on 88th Street. He and PJ opened the five-table restaurant in 1984. Every person who came in for a meal was wined and dined with old-world hospitality, as though they had stepped from an Anchorage street directly onto a Greek island. Business was slow to pick up, so Spiros and PJ had plenty of time to linger at the tables and visit with their guests.
For the first four years, the restaurant barely paid for the overhead. In the late 1980s, Anchorage had fallen into such a deep recession that you could buy a condo for $15,000. One of my mother’s colleagues drove up the Al-Can highway during the economic hemorrhage and counted an average of 90 cars a day headed out of Alaska, packed with families and their household belongings. It was Hard Times. Spiros and PJ lived in a vacant section of the building that housed the restaurant. Many were the nights when PJ would wake at 2am and walk over to the restaurant to find Spiros at one of the tables, fast asleep with his head on the table, a pile of ragged money and restaurant tickets in front of him.
Finally, Spiros found a hidden reservoir of strength, printed up flyers and started putting them out in neighborhoods all over the area. He worked late at night, trudging through snow banks, wearing a fluorescent orange vest so a neighbor wouldn’t mistake him for a bear or a burglar. Little by little, the business began to grow. Over the next several years, they knocked out walls and added tables.
I joined the team a couple of months shy of the Little Italy 10-year anniversary celebration. Spiros created a special menu and brought in a live Greek band for the occasion. It is astonishing to me that, just a few days ago, the Gialopsoses celebrated 30 years of business in South Anchorage. They have added a second business on the end of the building ― 88th Street Pizza.
The Gialopsos children ― Akis, Anastasia and Amalia, were small children when I began working at the restaurant. Akis was 6 years old and decked out in a tiny suit when he started helping out in the restaurant. Now he is well over six feet tall, fluent in both Greek and English. Anastasia is married and has two children of her own. I haven’t kept up with Amalia as well, but from all accounts, she is doing well. All of them share a family bond that eludes many people in our country.
I thank God for the opportunity to work with the Gialopsos family. It was a unique and life-changing experience. God bless you, Spiros, PJ, Akis, Anastasia and Emily. I love all of you.