It’s hard to imagine writing an article that will do Yoleni’s justice now that I’ve essentially moved in — in fact, that’s what my roommate has started telling people, and it’s only a slight exaggeration. Since their soft opening on May 11, I’ve been at Yoleni’s all but three days. Prior to leaving on Memorial Day for vacation, I felt the need to notify the owners and employees of my absence so as to not alarm anyone when I didn’t show up for several days. In response to my announcement, they all came over and hugged me goodbye. Somehow, in only two weeks, I have found myself part of the family. This is how I know this place is authentic: The only time I have ever felt such welcome (apart from Providence’s hidden pizza gem, Piemonte) was in Greece itself.
And truly, I tell you, this place has brought Greece with them. It is in their recipes, their ingredients and in their sense of philotimo.
Philotimo is a Greek word that has no direct English translation, but it is essential to the spirit of Greece and true Greek culture. It is, in some sense, the embodiment of virtue — selflessness, generosity, kindness, honoring one’s family and country, acting both courageously and humbly, going “above and beyond” the norms of hospitality because This is who we are, not This is what we can get from it. That is the spirit of Yoleni’s.
I’ve been talking about the opening of this café/market/restaurant since last summer when I first heard about its construction. I immediately contacted Alexander Philippides, the owner, and asked to meet with him.
He graciously accepted me into the old Tilden Thurber building on Westminster — an historic property in Downcity known for its jewelry-selling days — and inside was a post-apocalyptic scene: butcher paper covering all of the windows, sawdust underfoot, wires hanging from the ceiling, the sound of power drills echoing throughout the cavernous space.
Alex explained the vision to me. There would be two floors, with seating above and below. There would be pita stations where people could order freshly made sweet and savory pitas, spanakopita and tiropita, baklava. “Will there be frappes?” I asked in earnestness, missing the Greek style coffee that’s impossible to find anywhere except the occasional Greek festival.
“Of course!” he assured me. He continued: There would be a market with imported goods from Greece — olive oils, cheeses, honeys, nuts, wine. It sounded magical. “We are planning to open in November,” he said.
I don’t know much about construction, but I do know something about Greek time, so I guessed they would open in February. We were both wrong — it opened in May — but one thing I can say is that it was worth the wait. It is magnificent.
The space has transformed from piles of wooden planks to a spacious, sunlit café filled with marble-topped tables and chairs painted in all shades of the Aegean. There is a grand staircase in the center of the restaurant that leads to a second floor seating area, balconies lined with green plants, and a small bar upstairs that will soon offer wine and olive oil tastings. Also on the second floor, situated in full view of the restaurant below, musicians will come to offer live music during weekend brunch, their melodies descending from on high as if sung by angels (I may be projecting here as I tend to liken this place to heaven).
Meanwhile, the downstairs is divided into three sections: a seating area, a market (which carries throuba olives from my island of Thasos!), and the fresh food line, extending all the way from the pita kitchen, where passersby can watch the chefs through front-facing windows, to the refrigerated section in the back where one can find homemade meals and dips ready to go: moussaka, pastitsio, stuffed grapes leaves, tzatziki, beet salad, eggplant dip, spicy whipped feta (tirokefteri, one of my favorites!), and so much more.
And let me tell you about the yogurts — if my “music descending from above” didn’t make you think of heaven, this yogurt will. This is the best yogurt I’ve ever had, made in house, true Greek style. In addition to traditional plain yogurt, they sell flavors such as honey lemon, honey coffee, honey blueberry — all of which are sweetened only with honey. Although they offer an assortment of toppings, I can’t get past the unadulterated goodness of a simple bowl of honey lemon yogurt.
I used to think of Yoleni’s as the Greek version of Eataly — the Italian marketplace in Boston and NYC — but I realized there’s a key difference. Eataly is composed of separate vendors coming together in a single space, whereas Yoleni’s considers itself a family, and it is literally that; more than working together as a cohesive unit, they are, in fact, a family-owned business. Alexandra, Alex’s wife, is a Newport native who visited Greece one summer and stayed for 20 years. But after Alex’s brother opened Yoleni’s in Athens, she and Alex dreamed of expansion in the USA, beginning right here in Providence. Their whole family has arrived here, too, and while their eldest daughter is moving soon to attend graduate school, their two sons, Yianni (John) and Demetri (Jim), and their nephew (also Yianni) can be found at the store daily, serving food, welcoming visitors and explaining Greek products.
Despite delaying their official grand opening, word has traveled quickly. By their second full day, a wrap-around line filled the interior of the store, but no one seemed to mind. (Note: This was before they had all the registers working– things are running smoothly now!) As customers examined the menus, we were offered free samples of cheeses and salamis, dips and spreads. “How can you know if it’s something you want to buy if you haven’t tasted it?” Yianni (the son) asked.
And this is their philosophy — it’s not just a matter of selling food, it’s a matter of education. It’s a matter of experience. Since we are not all able to board the next flight to Greece (and believe me, I’m weeping over this), Yoleni’s is where we can go to catch a glimpse of the old world as it meets us in the 21st century.
The heart of Greece has now found its way into the heart of Providence. By day it’s a bustling café and market, and by night it’s a sit-down restaurant with a full bar. Go experience the true spirit of philotimo, where you are more than just a customer — you are family.
292 Westminster Street, PVD; facebook.com/YolenisProvidenceUSA