Angeliki Kleidoniari is not the first thing you see at Tzo Tavena – it’s Tomas.
We stopped at Tzo Taverna on a whim – it’s on the left on the way from Heraklion to Hersonissos, right before Gouves, in a place called Kokkini Hani. It’s nothing much to look at from the street, but the views from their seafront terrace are fairy-tale beguiling. They also have all the extras that make Crete such an enticing place: food, personality, and hospitality.
Tomas is one of the owners: loud as life, kinder than many, and as sweet as sweet deserves to be. Tomas is plain nice. He even flirts with some Russian women – because they remind him of his ex-wife, apparently. Tomas talks of his boy, and by gosh, I’d punish anyone standing on his way right now. Tomas is fantastic. But Angeliki is different.
She is proper and all so well behaved. You can see it – it’s all in her learned attitude – she’s done hospitality. But she is not the first thing you see when you come here.
Loud and jolly Tomas – a bit smart-assy (I’m coining this), judgy, and self-aware, he’s the thorn in your paw, but it’s all better when brown-eyed Angeliki gazes your way. Such a blessing!
She’s just 25 but she acts older than life with her “no, stop!” reaction to my “I am fat” motion. Then we ask what’s good on the menu, and she goes on recommending the most unlikely thing – mussels with feta. Now, wait for it…
Athena, Angeliki’s mother, has been working in this restaurant for two years now. She speaks no English – but when the food is so good, words fail. This is the beauty of the island – always expect the unexpected. Sometimes is a smile when your day goes wrong; sometimes it is a joke that cracks you up and you laugh out so loud the sky echoes your voice like thunder; and, more often than not, is a bite of something so delicious it brings tears to your eyes. Like these mussels with feta cheese. I suppose this is Athena’s take on mussels saganaki – eliminating the tomatoes from the recipe was a good choice. It’s not the only one.
The snails are equally enticing if you are into the less ordinary delicacies that sound fancy on a French menu. “Escargot” on Crete is served in larger-than-life portions, cooked in olive oil with salt and rosemary. Some restaurants will give you the escargot fork. Others not. Ask for a toothpick and get your hands dirty – it works way better. Somehow, it even tastes better.
Then, the fried calamari – as ordinary as this dish may sound – was a mouthful of joyful flavours that somehow reminded me of the Little Mermaid. If I were Ariel, this is what I would eat. Buttloads of this calamari.
Top it with a pancake – nothing to really write home about, but it has chocolate. No one goes wrong with chocolate.
It all ended with the traditional raki served with fresh fruit and finally getting to talk to both Tomas and Angeliki – the highlight of the day. They are both so open, honest, and full of goodness. Tomas is the “in your face” type of communicator. Angeliki is proper and moderately shy. But both are warm and kind, funny and witty – they make you feel like family.
And it hits me: it’s philoxeníā all the way. Their famous “love of strangers” – a way of life so free of inhibitions, tender yet uninhibited, like a sirtáki dance. These two people remind me of why I moved from Germany to Crete. This kind of hospitality reminds me of childhood – the purity and innocence of village life in Romania and all the magic of “once upon a time.”