Everyone has a favorite. Mine is Bantis. Of course, a hand-stretched dough is going to be best. Only a couple of people still know how to do this, and he’s one of them. Happily though, the truth is, it’s hard to find a bad bougatsa in Thessaloniki. It’s perfect by nature. The only real requirement is that it be fresh, and that you eat it while it’s still warm.
What is Bougatsa?
Among the Greek pies – and there are many – bougatsa is king. It’s crisp and tender, and so delicate that it is served already chopped into perfect bites to eat with a fork. It comes with a variety of fillings.
But the best thing about bougatsa is that it’s integral to the culture of Thessaloniki. It’s the first thing in your mouth when you have a day of hard work ahead of you, and the perfect snack after one of Thessaloniki’s famously late nights out. It sustains us at the day’s edges- from 6 am to 11 am, then again from 2 am to 6 am.
Why Does Thessaloniki Have Such Good Bougatsa?
It’s the same reason we have so many good things; during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Asia Minor settled in and around Thessaloniki. They brought with them a strong work ethic, exotic music, and recipes – including their skills with flaky dough.
Philipos Bantis is from such a family. He learned to make the specialty from his father, and he learned the history, too:
“In Asia Minor, bougatsa was a working man’s snack,” he began. “It was just the dough then – plain, with nothing. But it was tender and rich with butter, so it would keep you going all day.”
At his family store Bantis, Philipos still makes bougatsa “sketa” – plain, no filling – because his dough is that good. But nearly all bougatsa today has fillings. How did that happen? “Somehow, it became a fashionable tea time snack for the finer ladies of Smyrne. That’s when it got fancy, with fillings like minced meat or cheese.”
How He Makes It
Like anything so perfect in its simplicity, bougatsa takes skill. Philipos learned it from his father. The technique was passed down from Phillipos’ grandfather, who had learned it working in a Han (sometimes called a Khan). Thessaloniki once had dozens and dozens of Hans – with rooms for travelers, shelter and hay for their animals, and storerooms for their goods.
I go down to the kitchen to watch Philipos make the next day’s batch. He takes a disc of dough and flattens it to the size of an LP. Then he spins it and tosses it and unfurls it until soon it’s as big as a tablecloth and whisper thin.
It looks fun, and so easy: “It’s not so easy,” he says with a laugh. “It fell on my head a lot while I was learning.”
The Classic Versions of Bougatsa
Bougatsa typically comes in at least two varieties: cream – served with sugar and cinnamon – and cheese. If you get to a place early enough in the day, they’ll still have spinach probably, and maybe also minced meat.
Special Variations of Bougatsa
It would be hard to improve on a classic. But an after-hours bougatsa place that’s a favorite stop before going to sleep after a late night out has two popular twists. Cream bougatsa is served under a mound of Merenda (that’s like Greek Nutella). Minced meat bougatsa comes with thick strained yogurt and lashings of hot pepper sauce.
Philipos makes a few special varieties sometimes at Bantis. Come on Sundays for fig and graviera and other more modern tastes.
But plain- sketa- remains for purists the very best.
Where to Get the Best
Of course go to Philipos if you can. Also, “To Neon”- downtown and right across from the Music Conservatory near the ladadika neighborhood – also makes their own dough. “To Xryso” – a chain- has bougatsa made in advance, but it’s hot and fresh.
Freshness is key, and you can tell by looking at it. Most neighborhood shops serve a fine bougatsa, especially early in the day. By 11 or so, it will have been sitting out too long. Sate your after hours cravings at “Giannis” at the beginning of Mitropoleos street, near the white tower. They open in the evening and close the following afternoon.
Bantis, Panagias Fanouromenis 33. 6:30 – 15:00 daily