By SYLVIE BIGAR, NEW YORK TIMES
IT all started with a sweet, cinnamon-tinted whiff. The subway roaring above, I crossed the street and followed my curiosity to the Greek bakery tucked in the corner of a shopping complex in Astoria, Queens. That afternoon, the first of my many visits to Artopolis Bakery, on 31st Street and 23rd Avenue, there were bohemians, families pushing strollers, and old men in black suits lined up against the counter or crowded at the few wrought-iron tables, dunking cookies in the darkest coffee I’d ever seen.
Basket after basket of Greek cookies — pistachio shortbreads, kritsinia studded with sunflower seeds, sesame ladokoulouros, cinnamon biscuits — sat alongside shiny braids of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, puffy spinach-and-cheese pies, twisted golden fritters and eight kinds of baklava. Three women in white aprons milled about behind a wooden kiosk, eager to help.
Just as I was ready to order, I heard an energetic click-clack of high heels on the marble floor, followed by cascading laughter. Regina Katopodis, one of the owners, made her entrance, greeting customers and kissing old friends.
Ms. Katopodis was born in Brooklyn, lived and worked in Athens for 15 years and once led the American Women’s Organization of Greece. She opened the shop in 2003 with her husband, Angelos Katopodis; Kostas Tzaras; and Niko and Panaghi Pantelatos. They imagined a mix of a Greek bakery and a pastry shop, and called it Artopolis, the city of breads.
“My passion? People and cookies,” Ms. Katopodis said.
With the sound of the Greek pop singer Nana Mouskouri cooing in the background, I bit into a delicious amber melomakarona, the traditional Christmas biscuit redolent of honey and cloves, and then tasted a three-nut cookie dusted with powdered sugar and a crumbly kourabietha with almonds and drops of ouzo.
“My favorite?” the affable Mr. Katopodis chimed in. “Galaktoboureko, a custard pie Regina used to make for me at home.” He oversees the bakery’s recipes when he is in town, but he spends most of the year in Greece, where he is vice mayor of Ithaca, his native island.
Just as I was craving another cookie, Ms. Katopodis led me to the kitchen to witness a dance like no other. Aleksandros Shytani, a wiry baker who recently moved to Queens from Athens, started with an innocuous ball of dough that he flattened into a disc. Then he pulled and stretched and flipped it over his head like a veil before laying it on the cold counter. He pulled even more and created the thinnest phyllo sheet.
With utter precision, Mr. Shytani lined the sheet with a strand of ricotta, feta, cream cheese and egg for tiropita, then rolled the dough into a long snake. Finally, he turned the snake into a spiral, and onto the baking tray it flew.
“Aleksandros just walked in, looking for a job,” Ms. Katopodis said, “and as soon as I saw him in action, I knew we had to hire him. He’s the real thing.”
Since the opening, she has mined old cookbooks and her friends’ grandmothers’ memories in search of secret familial cookie recipes for the store or for special occasions: engagement parties, weddings, baptisms and, particularly meaningful for Greek families, annual name day celebrations.
Ms. Katopodis feels connected to it all. “Thanks to our cakes and cookies, I am a part of my customers’ lives,” she said.
As I got ready to leave, my arms loaded with boxes of cookies, Ms. Katopodis sat down with a young couple planning their wedding.
“So how did you meet?” she asked, passing the cookies.