Market Tours: Titan Foods, a Greek Grocery Giant in Astoria
Like the immortal gods of strength and stamina (descendants, no less, of Earth and Heaven) from which it borrows its name, Titan Foods is a giant among Greek grocers. It claims to be the largest in North America, and it very well might be, what with its large Astoria outpost, a 40,000 square foot warehouse in Long Island (which houses a second bakery), and some 50-odd employees and an extensive mail-order program.
"Titan has been around for about 25 years" explained manager Nick Luzis, a Greek gentleman in his late 30s, dressed (when I visited, at least) in the blue of the Greek flag. "Eighty percent of the stuff here, we import ourselves from Greece directly. And we have a big clientele base—lots of people who drive in from Jersey, Connecticut. I guess Greek specialty food, the Mediterranean diet, has gotten more popular. Everybody just loves their olive oil!"
For those of us lucky enough to live a subway ride away, it's worth a visit, if anything for the Greek pop music, the local banter, and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon and almonds in the air.
Titan Foods is a proper suburban-esque grocery store, with enough space for aisles (each marked with a handpainted sign), a deli counter and, even, a bakery. The bakery is a particular treat, with lovely ladies who'll sneak in an extra sweet (that you absolutely must try) if you ask them what their favorite is. High on the list of sweet and savory Greek pastries are custardy galaktobourecko (made with semolina), honey-rich baklava, tiropita (cheese triangles) and spanakopita (spinach), and a special case piled with fried phyllo cylinders called touloubakia.
There's plenty of what Luzis considers "popular" Mediterranean products: several kinds of fruity Greek olive oil, the increasingly trendy Greek yogurt (including the brands you already know, and a homemade batch at the deli counter which is ladled up by the spoonfuls), kefir, hummus, some eight varieties of feta cheese (Greek, Bulgarian and American-made), and so many olives.
Ten varieties, in fact: Amfisa, Thasou, Morocco, Kalamata, Volou, Halkidikis, Sparta, Agrinio, Nafplio, Alfonso, plus large versions, and spicy versions, and versions stuffed with almonds.
Beyond the popular, Titan Foods stocks everything you need to make the dishes you'll find in Astoria's Greek tavernas. There's Greek butter made from sheep's milk, tahini (plain, with honey and with cocoa), and large tins of stuffed grape leaves. In addition to the feta counter (yes, feta gets its own counter), there's the common Kasseri cheese (good for sandwiches), Keflotiri cheese, and halumi and kefalograviera cheeses (both often fried as the popular saganaki). In the freezer you'll find seasoned meats for making souvlaki (both chicken and pork), kokoretsi, seftalia, and lahmajun, as well as bakalao (salted cod), and smoked herring.
To drink with your Greek creations there's Greek beer (Mythos, Keo and Marathon), sour cherry syrup for homemade soda, and (because Titan Foods can't stock hard liquor) ouzo-flavored soda.
If you're not cooking, the prepared specialties alone are enough to recreate an authentic Greek mezze: salty fish roe taramosalata, cheesy tirokafteri, garlicky skordalia, moustalevria (made from grape must and flour), cool cucumber yogurt tzatziki, and fluffy homemade pita to go with it.
For dessert, if the bakery doesn't draw, there are nougat bars, sesame honey candy, halvas, Cretian and Greek honey for drizzling over yogurt, and Greek coffee (including Vassilaros, Loumidis, and Bravo) for a post-repast digestif.
And as with all good supermarkets, there's soda and soap, Greek newspapers and flags, and, even, a home goods aisle, with blue glass beads to ward against the evil eye, colorful paintings religious in nature, and briki, traditional long-handled pots in stainless steel and copper, for making coffee.
"Spinach pie and feta from the barrel." Luzis didn't hesitate when I asked what I just had to take home (the feta in brine is particularly delicious.) But when I asked what brings the Greeks in from off the street and as far away as DC, he paused, musing "we have so many of those kinds of things!" He thought a moment, then pointed to a shelving unit near the entrance lined with identical packages. "Tsoureki. It's an Easter specialty, but it's so loved we make it year round. Ah, and spoon sweets!" He indicated that I should follow him, and walked to aisle three, pulling what looked like a jar of marmalade off the shelf. "These are spoon sweets. You spoon it into a glass of water, and eat it."
Spoon sweets come in tangerine, pergamont, bitter orange, vanilla, grape, quince, fig, sour cherry and masticha, a popular spice made from the resin excreted from the trunk and the branches of the "schinos," the Greek name for the mastic tree. When I asked why one would eat jam with water (especially after learning that it doesn't, in fact, dissolve on account of the process), Luzis laughed. "I don't know why! It's just the Greek way."
25-56 31st Street, Astoria, NY 11102 (map)