It's hard to imagine a time when Italian food was considered exotic.
Richard Eppley remembers it perfectly.
In the 1950s he was among those who cherished occasions to visit the Open Kitchen restaurant.
It was among the first places in town where diners could order pizza, lasagna, spaghetti and other “international” cuisine.
Steve Kokenes created the recipes. He was Greek, not Italian. Yet, his menu transformed his brother Speros' fledgling sandwich shop, which opened on West Morehead Street in 1952.
And those same recipes are on the menu today.
“It's still the best pizza in Charlotte,” Eppley said.
The food is just one of the reasons Eppley still visits several times a week, sometimes with his two adult sons.
He also returns because of memories that are more vivid here, in the building painted boldly in red, white and green, colors of the Italian flag.
There were lots of meals with his wife, Kathryn “Kitty” Eppley, and their four children over the years.
The family has returned for graduation parties and birthdays, including Eppley's 81st in January.
The gregarious Steve Kokenes, who died in 1983, and his brother Spero, who died in 1967, would visit Eppley and other customers at their tables, tending each with great care.
Between courses of Chicken Parmigiana and meatball submarines, customers saluted the staff by hanging their high school pennants along one wall.
Photos cropped up overhead near the entrance – celebrities, plain folks and others that diners hold in esteem. Posters and historical photos of the city found a place here, too.
“Coming in here, all of your senses are stimulated,” said Christina Skiouris. She and her brothers, Alex and Dean Kokenes, are the proprietors today. Steve Kokenes was their father.
“It just seems like the place where I should be,” Skiouris said. “It keeps me connected with my parents and what they built for us.”
Four other family members help keep the family business going: Alex's wife, Valerie, their uncle John Malatras, and Christina's two sons, Kyriakos and Stephanos Skiouris.
Longtime employee George Yeorgoulias takes over at night to greet customers.
The 250-seat restaurant is undeniably aged, but Italian music and pours of Chianti, the favored drink here, make it a festive neighborhood gathering place.
New customers visit every week, thanks to revitalization in the Wesley Heights area that escalated with the opening of the Carolina Panthers' football stadium in the 1996.
The best-seller for new and old customers is the Mama K Supreme pizza (9-inch $11.50 and 12-inch $13.50), which arouses the senses with aromas of Italian meats, peppers and onions.
Braciole, a house specialty, is sliced beefsteak stuffed with Italian sausage, prosciutto and Genoa salami in a tomato sauce ($15).
The standouts for Eppley will always be the Crabmeat Parmigiana ($16) and the Veal Barcelona ($15.50). These made Open Kitchen a gem for him and his late wife, Kitty.
“But I warn you, it may capture your heart for the next 50 years as it did mine.” he said.
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