If you wait all year for Charlotte’s annual Greek Festival in early September, right now you are likely saying “Where can I get a taste of that pastry before next fall?”
In this city where Greek families seemed to run nearly every restaurant for many years, it is still difficult to find a Greek bakery. As immigrants, Greeks worked hard to blend in, baking biscuits and making pancakes and serving white-bread toast with breakfast – good American food to bring in American customers.
Jimmy Kleto is quietly changing that. Drop by his Central Coffee, the unassuming shop next to the exuberant rainbow mural of White Rabbit Books on Central Avenue. Alongside muffins, scones and quiches, he also features koulouraki, paxemathi and baklava, all baked by his mom, Olga Kleto.
Paxemathi? It’s a close relative to Italian biscotti, crisp and bread-like. Baklava needs no introduction; the thin sheets of phyllo dough and gooey honey-nut filling are well known to nearly every American with a sweet tooth.
But what about koulouraki? It is a shortbread cookie, not too sweet, perfect with coffee but good to munch on its own. Olga forms buttery dough into a rope – “so relaxing to sit there and roll it out,“ she says – then braids it. “Kouloura” in Greek means “braid.”
“My father came here from central Greece,” Olga recalls. He earned U.S. citizenship by volunteering for the military in World War II. His DNP Coffee Shop became an uptown mainstay, but Greek specialties were served only at home.
“I’ve seen Charlotte change so much in my lifetime,” Olga muses.
Thanks to the Greek Festival and to influxes of newcomers from all over the U.S. and around the globe, this city is now open to diverse tastes. “Anything you want to eat, you can go find it,” she says.