I eat out a lot. And while I have a good memory for food, there are a disconcerting number of meals for which my server's face is gone from my memory. A sameness, a rote recitation of specials and "Hi, my name is (blank) and I'll be taking care of you this evening," even the uniforms start to blend (black pants, white shirt; black pants, white apron). A couple meals recently at the new Taverna Skara and I was jolted awake.
Yana Kappis was born to wait tables at a warm, homey Greek restaurant. She comes from a Greek restaurant family, her folks owning and working in restaurants here and in Tennessee. She knows this food cold —the difference between haloumi and graviera cheese (graviera is a light yellow cheese with a sweet-nutty character; haloumi, a mix of goat and sheep, is white and has a creamy, salty flavor), and when the evening's special lamb shank with artichokes ($17.95) is especially good.
And it was especially good on a recent visit. Owner John Pavlatos, who also owns Eggstyle in Oldsmar and Sarasota, took over the space vacated by Vincenzo's Ristorante and launched the taverna in January. The interior is pleasant but fairly bare-bones, the Greek radio piped in adding as much atmosphere as the Greek frieze reproduction on one wall. No matter, Yana has enough "opa!" in her pinkie finger to fuel the joint.
There's a large menu, both in physical size and scope. Start with a little plate of warm pita triangles and kalamata olives, then head toward the lesser-known items: Yes, the Greek salad is good (a more authentic version with no lettuce, no potato salad; $8.95 small, $10.95 large), but I was more intrigued by the prasini ($7.95, $9.95), a chiffonade of romaine flecked with dill, scallion and fluffs of very good feta, the whole thing with a lemon-tangy dressing. It was an appetizer in the truest sense, as was another salad, the Skara ($7.95, $9.95), which featured a round of warm roasted manouri (semi-soft white cheese most often used in desserts), mixed greens, nuts and a sweet-tangy dressing touched with honey.
Housemade avgolemono ($4.95) reads like Grandma's work, the wide bowl cradling soup that tastes mostly of good chicken broth, rice and hunks of white meat chicken, all with a modest lemon kick and the right amount of seasoning. And every bit as homey was my order of yemista ($15.95), one roasted stuffed pepper and one tomato, each filled with white rice and ground beef in equal measure, a bit of tomato and a strong hand with the dried mint lending distinction. The yemista comes, as many dishes do, with wide planks of lemon-kissed and oregano-flecked roasted/braised potato.
Taverna Skara's gyro ($12.95 as a platter) is satisfying and generous, but for my money I'd head for the more unusual meat offerings, from that slow-braised lamb shank to grilled housemade pork sausage (loukaniko; $9.95), or an order of meatballs in a tomato sauce jazzed with a splash of ouzo and a bit of mint ($8.95).
Through it all, Yana will give thoughtful advice about the wine list (a fair number of Greek offerings, all affordable) and beers (including Mythos and Fix, both ho-hum Hellenic lagers), inserting a joke here and a bit of Greek history there. Despite Taverna Skara's proximity to the big guns of Tarpon Springs and even nearby Greektown Grille, Pavlatos has the makings of a hit on his hands, especially if he can keep Yana working the room.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.