By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photograph by Keith Whitney
Florence isn’t the first place that springs to mind for stuffed grape leaves, nap-inducing slabs of moussaka or galaktoboureko, the custard-like sweet dessert. The man serving it, Peter Koulouris, owner of Mount Athos Restaurant and Café, is just as surprised that a town known for folksy Mexican and steak restaurants has embraced his family’s Greek culinary heritage.
“When we moved here from New York, we had no intention of doing a Greek restaurant,” says Peter, who opened the restaurant with his mother, Joanna Koulouris, and his late father, George Koulouris, in 2005. “We were going to do a diner with American food, just like we had in Manhattan — burgers, BLTs — but our contractor got excited and put up a sign that read, ‘Greek restaurant coming soon,’ so that was that.”
How the Koulouris family wound up in Arizona is another story. For years, Greece-born George co-owned a diner in Manhattan, where a young Peter learned the business, too. Then came September 11, 2001. “We stood in the street and saw the smoke,” Peter recalls. “We could see the tower fall. It was horrifying. As people fled, our restaurant was one of the first places where they felt safe. They came in to eat and drink, and our freezers and refrigerators were emptied by people who just walked by.”
Joanna, also born in Greece, put her foot down. She wanted her family out of New York and into Arizona, where she and George had made several trips for spiritual retreats at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, a lush, peaceful enclave outside Florence. The monastery had sparked a burgeoning Greek community in the area, and Joanna felt the desert would be a safe place for the family to re-establish roots.
The family considered opening a restaurant as far afield as Tucson or Mesa, but they chose the Florence site on the main highway by doing what Peter calls a “Greek survey”: “We stood on the corner and counted cars.”
They built a 4,300-square-foot restaurant with a full bar, done in a woodsy, vintage style echoing the architecture of the town’s adjacent historic district.
Visit today, and you can start out with an order of saganaki, the flaming Opa! cheese (pictured) done tableside, and sip an ouzotini (vodka splashed with ouzo and garnished with a feta-stuffed olive), often served by Peter himself, an affable host. Besides the made-from-scratch potato-and-eggplant moussaka, Joanna’s Greek-style lamb shanks are popular, as are other classics, such as the pasta-layered pastitsio, Greek salads, gyros and souvlaki plates. Not in the mood for Greek cuisine? Burgers, grilled pork chops and chicken Parmesan also emerge from the Mount Athos kitchen.
Now firmly established as one of Florence’s go-to eateries, Mount Athos had a slow start the first few months, Peter admits. “We are in a small town,” he says, “but once everyone figured out we were not bad New Yorkers, everyone started to eat here. We get tourists, lawyers, judges, sheriffs ... even people who just got out of prison up the street. They all just want a good meal.”
Mount Athos Restaurant and Café is located at 444 N. Pinal Parkway in Florence. For more information, call 520-868-0735 or visit www.mountathoscafe.com.