Greek Festival a celebration of culture, outstanding food
This year marks the 28th annual Cranston Greek Festival, which opens Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. at the Church of the Annunciation, 175 Oaklawn Avenue, Cranston, and runs through Sunday.
The three-day event will feature baklava, rice pudding with cinnamon, specialty salads and sandwiches, among other items. Different types of home goods and apparel will be available for purchase, and a variety of music will be played throughout the weekend.
The festival will provide a display of Greek heritage and culture, including tours of the Greek Orthodox Church and dance performances by the award-winning Odyssey Dance Troupe.
Theofanis Markos, the parish council president, has chaired the ambitious undertaking since 1996.
Markos oversees 29 different festival committees and works year-round with over 200 volunteers to ensure the festival’s on-going success.
Markos realizes outdoor events like the Cranston Greek Festival are dependent upon weather. Back in 2009, a nor’easter ripped through Rhode Island and forced cancellation of the once-a-year event.
“We’ve had more good luck than bad luck with the weather,” he said. “Naturally, we’re hoping for sunshine this weekend.”
Even if it rains, festival goers will still be able to enjoy the Greek Pastry Shoppe, chaired by Koula Rougas and Roula Proyous.
“Three quarters of our parking lot will be covered by about a dozen huge canopy tents,” Markos said.
Although he chairs the festival, Markos doesn’t just stroll from booth to booth meeting and greeting the many attendees who come from all over the state, as well as neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. He also works the kitchen and does “whatever our people need.”
Markos said his main objective is “making sure that everybody who comes to our church has a good time. We want to make sure they enjoy our Greek heritage and culture.”
“Seeing our younger kids dance, and the people who come to the festival enjoying lots of Greek food and pastry,” said Markos, is what really makes him happy. “Everything here is homemade – and all by volunteers.”
The Greek Pastry Shoppe will offer a dozen different items and a total of 35,000 pieces of pastry, but the festival has also become famous for its dinner specialties, like “Arni,” Greek-style roast lamb, and “Hirino,” charcoal-broiled, marinated pork on skewers.
Other festival specialties include the Gyro sandwich, a blend of beef and lamb, breadcrumbs and spices filled and served with onions, tomato, tzatziki sauce in a grilled pita bread, and Loukaniko, grilled Greek style sausage served on a roll.
Keeping with tradition, there will be “Kotopoulo,” oven roasted half chicken; Pastitsio, layers of pasta and seasoned ground beef and baked with a béchamel sauce; and “Plaki” (Friday only), tender fish baked with tomatoes, onions, garlic and fresh seasonings.
Side offerings range from Spanakopita (spinach pie) to Tyropita (cheese pie) to pork souvlaki, Dolmades (rice-stuffed grape leaves), oven roasted potatoes, rice pilaf, Greek salad and pita bread.
All festival food is cooked to order.
Harry Bablenis, who Markos says “is our resident executive chef and will be in the kitchen throughout the festival,” has been the head chef since the early 1980s.
Whenever there’s an event at the Church of the Annunciation, Bablenis can be found in the kitchen along with cooks Dennis Sampalis and Jim Grammas.
“Harry has lots of experience cooking Greek food,” Markos said. “And he’s very knowledgeable about all our Greek foods.”
A one-time cook at the former Colony Hotel on Narragansett Boulevard in Cranston, which is now a Johnson & Wales University facility, Bablenis said he loves his church and working the festival.
“The festival is the most important event of the year for our church,” he said.
Markos said the following will be used during the three-day festival: 2,000 pounds of boneless legs of lamb; 1,000 pounds of pork loin; 2,500 ponds of gyro meat; 2,000 pounds of boneless chicken; 150 pounds of fish; 75 bags of potatoes; 350 pounds of rice; 540 cases of tomatoes; 20 cases of cucumbers; 50 cases of mixed salad; and 65 cases of pita bread.
“Kali Oreksi!” Markos said with a smile on his face. “That’s our way of saying, ‘Bon Appetite!’”