Nabeel’s is a synthesis of a family’s heritage—Greek and Italian.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Miller Mobley
Nabeel’s Cafe is an original. John Krontiras was born in Greece, and his wife, Ottavia was born in Italy. In Homewood, Alabama, they conceived a café that is both—along with additional Mediterranean influences. Since 1993 the Krontiras family has grown the original Nabeel’s Cafe more than three times the original size, overtaking the entire building, with three dining rooms and a Greek market.
Nabeel’s is named for its original owner Nabeel Shunnarah, from whom John bought the café. Although John’s son, Anthony has been the owner of the café since 1995, John remains the general manager. And his presence remains an integral part of the ambience. He is a tall and slender man, whose dark eyes recognize regular guests, while overseeing each plate coming from the kitchen. “No one in our family comes from a culinary background. We cook here what we cook at home,” John describes. “If we don’t serve it at home, we don’t serve it at Nabeel’s.”
“We are an old fashioned mom and pop restaurant and market. And we want to keep it that way,” Anthony says. Unlike his father, Anthony was born in New Jersey before the Krontiras moved to Birmingham. “My life has been very confusing,” he laughs. “My mother is Italian. My father is Greek. I was born in the north and grew up in the south, which makes me both a Yankee and a Southerner.” Anthony’s role is also a bit of everything. Previously he cooked, but now trains the cooks and can be found helping roll grape leaves if his time allows. In addition to overseeing the kitchen, servers, and market, he also does the restaurant’s accounting. “We work as a family, and I am behind the scenes the all-purpose person,” Anthony describes.
Nabeel’s regulars and ambience are also an eclectic mix. Some arrive in shorts and jeans, while others are dressed in cocktail attire. Some dine al fresco on the patio or the sidewalk under the green awning or at umbrella covered tables. Others dine in three dining rooms, each with its own ambience. A black and white tile floor, an old world bar and cozy booths make up the central dining space. To the left is another dining room that is situated between the main dining room and the market, with a wine cellar theme. And the third space, at the far end of the building, boasts a beautiful, hand painted mural.
Tonight we are seated at a window table below the mural. Nabeel’s menu is divided among Appetizers, Homemade Soups, Salads, Pita Sandwiches, Lunch and Dinner Specials, and Desserts. Items available in the market are starred. “Although we did not Americanize the food, the majority of our diners are not ethnic. But they know the cuisine, and even pronounce the names of the Mediterranean dishes correctly.”
Dinner begins with our choice of Greek wine—Tsantalis Blanc. Popular among the appetizers are the Taramasalata Dip, Homos Dip, and Tzatziki Dip. All are served with pita wedges, pita crunchies, or homemade bread. We opt for the Feta Theologos. The feta is marinated in extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, and Greek oregano, wrapped in aluminum foil and baked until it bubbles. The dish is served piping hot and to the background music of their Saturday evening accordion player, John Seay—who follows their Friday evening violin player, Ted Haddin. The creamy cheese is full of flavor and spreads into a thick, rich layer on the hot slices of toasted bread. This simple dish is wonderful. We don’t leave a bite of it!
Our friendly and efficient server Terra shares tonight’s specials: Grilled Norwegian Salmon, Filet Mignon with asparagus and mashed potatoes, and Shrimp Capellini. All entrees are served with a Greek Salad and homemade bread. We select Moussaka from the regular menu and the shrimp special.
The salads are served before the entrees. On a bed of iceberg lettuce is a colorful and delicious array of tomato wedges, cucumbers, feta, salonica peppers, Greek oregano and black olives. The salad is mixed in Nabeel’s Classic Greek Dressing, which is also available by the bottle in the restaurant, market and at local grocers.
Our entrees arrive piping hot. Aromas rise from a tasty bowl of Capellini, topped with pink, succulent shrimp—now that’s Italian! Nabeel’s Moussaka is an eggplant and ground beef casserole, topped with a hearty portion of Bechamel and a touch of tomato. Full of layers of flavor, this is Greek comfort food at its best. Soon to be added as entrée offerings are Beef or Chicken Kokinisto (Ko-ki-nisto’), Lamb or Beef Fricassee, Rabbit or Beef Stifado (stew), and Sauteed Quails.
In addition to his father’s footsteps, Anthony is also following his grandfather Papou’s legacy as a candy maker. The candies are available online at www.MarysGloriaCandies.com and in the restaurant. We opt for desserts of Spumoni Ice Cream and one of his candies—Pecan Brittle. Spumoni is reminiscent of childhood bites of three-flavored Neapolitan ice cream, which actually evolved from Spumoni. At one end of the rainbow is pistachio. The other end is lemon—with an array of flavors and colors in between. More structured and less creamy than American ice cream, it has a flavor all its own. And the rich, crunchy and divine brittle—filled with pecan halves—is absolutely addictive!
Nabeel’s is a neighborhood, sidewalk café that is truly a one of a kind. “Many have tried to imitate Nabeel's, but have never duplicated it,” John says with pride—as he should.