Maria Markitani

Cypriots, according to freelance cook Maria Markitani, live and breathe for food. “We talk about the food while eating it – and about what we’re going to eat next, before the meal has even finished,” says Markitani. Prior to returning home, she worked at Michelin-starred restaurants Maze by Gordon Ramsay and Social Wine and Tapas by Jason Atherton in London. Additionally, she interned at restaurants such as Amass, Marcus and The Portland. Now that she’s had a chance to take in Nicosia’s food scene, she believes the city’s young talent is bringing home new flavours, techniques, ideas and concepts: exactly what the city needs to establish itself as a Mediterranean stopover for visitors from around the world.

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Welcome to Nicosia

If a stranger visits Nicosia from a big city where there’s pretty much everything, I would want to take them to places I consider unique in their own way, like Bar Souvenir, and almost let them leave with a piece of my city. The High & Wet team, who also run a seasonal rooftop bar called Taratsa in the city centre, renovated a traditional house with a massive inner courtyard into an extravagant, kitsch wonderland. It’s so satisfying to look at: so colourful, vibrant and alive! The first time I went there, I kept asking where they found everything. They make creative cocktails like the “My Yaya was a bartender” (Yaya means grandmother) with mandarins, geranium syrup, mastiha foam and pink pepper. They also have an extensive G&T list which includes a Mediterranean one with Three Cents Aegean tonic, thyme and Malfy Originale gin. It’s generally a super fun place. The same team has a catering operation called Pear and Pair, which delivers ready-to-drink cocktails in beautiful glass bottles to your doorstep. It was a treat during lockdowns.

Modern Drinks in an Old Nicosian House

Granazi is a contemporary liquor bar in an old house at the heart of Nicosia. It has so much character, attention to detail, great interiors and a beautiful yard. The bar’s solid offering slowly took shape over the years and thank goodness it did, because it is now a one of a kind place to visit. I did the first pop-up in my brunch series there, right when I moved back from London. It was a first for me and for Granazi and we did so well together. Although it’s been a few years since the pop-up, we still talk about it with great pride. Granazi serves an extensive liquor and cocktails list including some classics, seven types of G&Ts, like one with portobello, saltwater, britvic light tonic and raspberry powder. It also serves signature alcoholic and non-alcoholic creations. It has a nice wine list as well, and a food menu that’s perfect for sharing.  

A Japanese-Inspired Listening Gastro Bar

I love Ukiyo. It’s like an audiophile bar where you can drink impeccable cocktails and enjoy a perfect small food menu that’s Japanese-inspired and mainly focused on robata (Japanese fireside cooking). The staff know their stuff from drinks to food to music, and are very helpful which makes the experience not intimidating at all. It’s so different from all the other places that have opened up in the last few years: the design is minimal – no frills, no bling – and the music puts you in a cool, laidback mood. It has an awesome, buzzy vibe all round.

A Bar That Draws a Crowd on Weekdays

The word “professional” is used very loosely nowadays and it really shouldn’t. Lambros, the owner of Silver Star Bar, lives up to the meaning of the word which is never easy in this world. He’s not afraid to set his own rules. His bar was the only bar in town that closed on weekends. No bar would dare do something like that. He started with that schedule and kept it going for years. Then the pandemic hit and turned everyone’s world upside down, so he decided to start opening on Saturdays as well. The bar is classy but really cool and relaxed at the same time. It has a very loyal crowd. Staff members have abundant wine knowledge and the cocktails, which is what I go for, are as refined as it gets. When I fancy a night out, this is the address that tops my list. 

A Walker’s Guide to Historical Nicosia 

A stroll in the old city is a great way to take it all in. You can stop at Swimming Birds for a coffee or refreshment, followed by some craft beer from a dozen tap options at Brewfellas, which also serves natural wines. You can sip on your drink on the little pavement in front of the shop while watching passersby. For dinner, go to Beba, a modern restaurant serving Greek and Cypriot flavours. The food is unpretentious and the service is excellent. It’s neither overly traditional nor excessive in adding twists to everything. It does its cooking in a wood-fire oven, has a one-page menu, plus another with daily specials that changes depending on what’s in season and what’s available. I always aim to get a table in the backyard which is full of trees and plants and is really beautiful.

Further Adventures for Those That Like To Walk

A walk in Old Nicosia is also the best way to experience the local cultural scene. Start with a cheese pie hot out the oven for breakfast from an old tea room called Hurricane Confectionery. Lots of artists go to Prozak Kafeneio for a glass of wine, cocktails made with Cypriot spirits like zivania brandy, and zivanomelo: a drink made with zivania, honey, cinnamon and cloves. It has a distinct local touch and is a place that oozes creativity and hosts small exhibitions, live gigs and book readings. All the mugs and small plates are made by the owner’s mum who is a ceramist. Then there’s Haratsi in a dead zone of the city. It’s a laidback place where people from all walks of life go. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you wear or what your social background is: the owner Stavros has a way of making everyone feel like they belong. You meet people there without trying. A person sitting alone at one table ends up exchanging stories and opinions with a group of people sitting at the table across the street. Haratsi makes nice brandy sours and serves ice-cold local beers: perfect for a hot day in the old city. 

Nicosia’s Best Street Food

Souvlaki is what all Cypriots crave when they return home. There are so many souvlaki places all around the city, but I would choose the all-time classic, Kontosouvli. It’s a tiny place run by a married couple and I really like their souvlaki although their specialty is actually kontosouvli (big chunks of pork slowly cooked on a spit over the charcoal). Unlike other souvlaki places, Kontosouvli doesn’t serve fries. Instead it bakes its potatoes. When I crave gyro or doner, I go to the takeaway and delivery-only Athinaiki Gonia which only makes beef and chicken doner. I usually get a mix of both with some tahini sauce and fries. In my opinion, it is the best doner you can have in the city: very flavourful without being overly heavy or oily.

Food That Feels Like Home

What I mainly crave when I go back home after a long time away is my mum’s food: beans and pulses and wholesome foods that I don’t eat when I’m abroad but are a big part of our everyday nutrition. Any traditional magirio (tavern) or psistaria (grillhouse) sells that kind of food. When I don’t eat at home, I go to Chytron Gefseis to have it dine-in, takeaway or delivered. Otherwise, I order in from Komitis which also does a juicy rotisserie chicken. 

A Tiny Pizzeria Where Quality Rules Over Quantity

I’m sure a lot of people aren’t aware that the team behind the Agora Hotel (soon to open in Lefkara Village) operate a tiny pizzeria called Tutto Passa Pizza, which only serves four different kinds of pizza. All four of them are yummy.

A Unique Cafe in the Ceasefire Zone Between Cyprus and Turkey

The Home Cafe at Home for Cooperation could really use some love and support. It’s a unique place that’s located in the middle of the dividing lines in Cyprus in the Ledra Palace area: a UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia. Many people don’t go there because of this, but it’s a real shame because it is really an experience, established by the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research in 2011 as a bridge-builder between separated communities. 

Tahini Pies and Other Souvenirs From Nicosia To Give to Friends  

I always take tahinopittes (tahini pies) to my friends who live abroad. They’re these sweet and sticky snacks that all bakeries in Nicosia make. My favourite ones are from Vienna Bakeries. I also like the ones from Faros, an old bakery in the old town. Its tahinopita is unconventional and like no other. The pites tis satzis from Platy Bakery in Aglantzia are a must: They’re slightly sweet, flatbread-like pies, baked on a satji, a traditional metallic dome used for cooking. 

A Family Favourite Worth Driving To

There’s a tavern in Ayios Theodoros village in the Larnaca region that my whole family goes to. Its name is Kali Eftixia, which roughly translates to “good happiness”. We used to go there all the time, so much so that my parents became friends with the owner. It’s a cosy place which makes traditional food really well and where we go to enjoy honest meze dishes and a beautiful backyard. We built some really special memories there as a family so I keep the place close to my heart.

An Introduction to Nicosia’s Farmers’ Markets

There are two fresh produce markets around Nicosia, one close to the Oxi roundabout that takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays; and the second one in the Strovolos region that operates in the parking area of the GSP Stadium on Tuesdays and Fridays. Our markets don’t look anything like those in European cities. There are no cooks, no street food vendors and no award-winning products wrapped up in cool packaging. Our farmers markets are raw, loud and sometimes a bit dirty, but I find them exhilarating. Seasonal products are perceived as delicacies in Cyprus. We have unique varieties of mushrooms, like Anathrika Mushrooms and Cypriot Red Mushrooms (Lactarius Deliciosus). Our agrelia (wild asparagus) are quite special too, often used to make omelettes. Poulles is a distant relative of taro and a traditional dish by the same name is made by first frying it before quickly braising it in red wine, then finishing it off with dried coriander seeds. It’s definitely worth trying. 

More Things To Take Home From the Farmers’ Market

At the market, seek out dried sour cherries and those semi-dried, chewy black figs dusted in flour to take home. They are the best. Also found in neighbouring countries like Georgia, soutzoukos is a typical product of Cyprus made from grape juice with almonds or walnuts in the middle. It’s chewy, sweet and aromatic and easy to pack. You can find it everywhere but the ones made by small producers are the best, so the market is a safe bet. Another thing I love are these different kinds of rusks we make. My favourite ones are arkatena which are made using yeast derived from fermenting chickpeas. They’re perfect with a hot cup of tea or coffee, as a snack on the go, or as part of a cheese platter. Dried trahanas is also a great thing to take with you. It’s made from fermented goat’s and sheep’s milk and cracked wheat, that we then boil along with halloumi pieces and turn into a soup. And last but not least, halloumi! You can’t leave Cyprus without it. We have two airports in Cyprus – one in Larnaca and another in Paphos – and there is a shop in both airports called Kypriaka (“Taste of Cyprus”) that sells all these products.

Photography Credit: Stelios Demetriou

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