It is still, for my money, one of the happiest developments in the history of Chicago dining.
When Liakouras, the man who gave the world flaming saganaki, opened the Parthenon in 1968, there was only one other white-tablecloth Greek restaurant on the strip: Diana’s Opaa!, which has closed. Liakouras, who grew up in Greece but served in the U.S. Army, had learned the business as a waiter at Diana’s.
Chicagoans back then were largely unfamiliar with Greek food. Today we know our moussaka from our dolmades, but not so much in the ’60s. Liakouras had to give customers complimentary samples of dishes such as gyros, saganaki and even ouzo, the anise-flavored liqueur, before they knew their way around the menu enough to order.
So how, I asked Liakouras one Saturday afternoon as we talked in the Parthenon’s bar, did he come up with flaming saganaki?
The restaurant, he explained, had been open only three or four days when a group of four women came in for lunch. He offered them a sample of traditional saganaki, a dish of Greek cheese coated in a batter of flour and egg and pan-fried in olive oil. In Greek, saganaki means “small frying pan.”
One of the women, who clearly had a great sense of theater though her name is lost to history, said, “Why don’t you put a little brandy on that and flame it?”
Liakouras froze. His eyes grew wide. “Stop right there,” he said to her. “Don’t say a word. I got it.”
He ducked behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of Greek brandy, doused the piping-hot cheese with about half a shot and lit it with a cigarette lighter. Flames shot two feet high.
Did Liakouras shout “Opa!” at that moment? Yes, he says, he did. It was one of the greatest ad-libs in Chicago history, equal to anything ever said at The Second City. Flaming saganaki without “Opa!” — basically, “Hurray!” — would be like birthday cake without singing “Happy Birthday.” All the same, Liakouras jokes now, he experimented with any number of alternatives: “Bingo!” and “Tallyho!” and “Go ahead, make my day.” There also was the time he set his hair on fire and said something else.
Flaming saganaki would be copied by almost every restaurant in Greektown and by Greek restaurants across the country and in Canada.
Over three hours, my sons and I shared seven orders of flaming saganaki in six restaurants. We included a little wine at the third restaurant and, feeling we were safely pacing ourselves, knocked down shots of ouzo at the fourth. We learned many things.
To begin with, all saganaki is not the same, as simple as the dish may be. Why I suspected otherwise I do not know. A hot dog is pretty basic, too, but nobody would confuse a Chicago-style dog with a Coney Island Nathan’s. As for the differences in saganaki, it’s all in the cheese.
At Pegasus on the north end of Greektown, where we ate first, the saganaki — “Opa!” — is made with kefalograviera, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk with a salt content of about 3.4 percent. Not that I knew this at the time. All I knew is that one son loved it and the other called it a “salty doughnut.”