Everybody Loves Stella

How the flavors of her Greek childhood changed the way we think about food.

(Photograph by Adam Ewing)

Nestled on a corner of Lafayette Street in Richmond, Stella’s radiates a golden warmth with its tin ceilings, wooden accents, and welcoming lighting. Katrina Giavos and her husband Johnny preside over this popular spot—along with a small restaurant empire throughout the city. But the soul of Stella’s is Katrina’s mother, Stella Dikos.

Generations here embrace the flavors of her spanakopita, pastichio, and souvlaki, something she couldn’t have imagined when she arrived from Trikala, Greece in 1962. “Nobody knew Greek food when I came here,” she recalls. “There was one French and one Italian restaurant.”

Although she’ll tell anyone she’s not a trained chef, says Katrina, “she has a great palate. I am amazed to watch her cook.” When visitors come from out of town, they marvel, ‘‘‘There’s a real Stella?’ We set our standards high out of respect for her.”

Simple and healthy, Greek food highlights fresh ingredients with the recurring flavors of the Mediterranean—lemon, mint, oregano, thyme, and rosemary. Meat sauces in pasta dishes are mellowed with a hint of cloves and cinnamon, an intriguing combination that’s “more Middle Eastern than Italian,” Dikos notes.

Stella’s menu captures these flavors in their purest form. “It’s how you eat in Greece,” says Giavos.

(Photo courtesy by Constantine Giavos)

Stella Dikos learned to cook as a child in Trikala. “The food at Stella’s now, in many ways, is the food I grew up with,” she explains. She recalls gathering dandelion greens, wild and sweet. And leeks, which she still uses instead of spinach when making spanakopita at home. “A lot of people don’t know about the leeks, but they’re delicious,” she says. And although she lived in the mountains, seafood was plentiful. “A train arrived with fresh caught fish each morning,” she recalls. “Maridas, sardelas, squid, octopus—all fresh.

She has no memory of her mother, who died in childbirth when she was just three, and so it was her grandmother and the women of her close-knit neighborhood who taught her about food. “They called me Stellita—little Stella—and took me under their wing,” she says. “I watched how they were making things and learned about cooking, social graces, everything. I was very lucky to grow up there.”

She arrived in Richmond at 18, working with her husband Stavros at his Village Restaurant, located in the heart of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. The couple opened the first Stella’s in the early ‘80s, on the second floor of a Fan District building. “People said, you’re crazy, who’s going to walk up 26 stairs to eat in a hippie neighborhood where you can’t find parking?” she recalls.

But she had faith. “I’ll never forget one crisp November morning there. I looked out the window and a powerful emotion came over me that said, I will do well here. If I make a good plate of food using all of my heart and all of my intelligence, people will come.”

They’re still coming. A Stella’s outpost in Charleston, South Carolina, opened five years ago. And the Lafayette Street restaurant just celebrated ten years. Across the street, a boutique stocks housewares and gifts curated by Katrina and her daughter Maria offering “the rest of Greece.” And, at six locations across Richmond, Stella’s Grocery—small markets stocked with prepared food, bakery items, wine, and other necessities, some with table seating—are thriving.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see Stella at the restaurant, where she still comes to bake occasionally. “I’m always in the background,” she says. “It’s what I like. I’m kind of shy.”

But when speaking of Richmond and the love she’s received, she doesn’t hesitate. “When you grow up with no mother and a very strict father, you grow up not having the support and praise that you see other girls having from their mothers. And when the people here show you that love and praise, you stand back and think ‘where does this come from?’”

“I think something guided me the right way, how to treat people, and in return, people treated me really well. I will never forget the support of the community of Richmond.”

Here, the family shares a few recipes for you to try in your own kitchen. Start with a crisp lima bean and feta salad, dressed simply in olive oil and herbs. Use creamy, cucumber-based tzatziki as a dip for breads or vegetables. And, enjoy the contrast of savory beans with salty olives in a rustic noodle dish—all, of course, alongside a good glass of Greek wine. StellasRichmond.com


Recipes

Lima Bean and Feta Salad

  • 1/2 small sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped small
  • 3 stalks celery, plus 3-4 springs center celery leaf, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 pounds frozen lima beans, thawed
  • 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled softly
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Mix together onions and celery. Add limas, and mix in feta. Add lemon and olive oil and stir. Add parsley, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6.

Tzatziki

  • 1 quart whole Greek yogurt
  • 2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded, grated, and squeezed to remove water
  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed in mortar and pestle
  • 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
  • 4 sprigs dill, chopped finely
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper

Combine yogurt and cucumbers in a large bowl. Add garlic, dill, lemon juice, and olive oil and mix gently. Add salt and pepper, and adjust to taste. Serves 6.

Hilopites: Rustic Greek Pasta

  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • White wine
  • 1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 pound Greek egg noodles, cooked
  • 2 cups gigantes (Greek giant beans)
  • 1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Mint, chopped

Heat pan, add olive oil, butter, and garlic. Add white wine until garlic is aromatic. Add tomatoes and noodles and toss until tomatoes start to blister. Add giant beans and olives and continue to toss. Add feta and mix until creamy. Add pine nuts, salt, and pepper. Remove from heat and garnish with mint to serve Serves 4-6.


This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue.

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