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Monday, September 30, 2013

Making Greek Spanakopita for the St. Anthony's International Festival in Bergenfield is a longtime tradition

WHAT: St. Anthony's International Festival. Greek, Middle Eastern and Slavic food, takeout and frozen food available; dancing, music, holiday shopping and raffles (a helicopter tour, Grand Cayman vacation, Broadway Weekend, among others).

Father Joseph Allen speaking to Robyn Ziemba in the kitchen of St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bergenfield as she prepares spanakopita.
CHRIS MONROE/SPECIAL TO THE RECORD

Father Joseph Allen speaking to Robyn Ziemba in the kitchen of St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bergenfield as she prepares spanakopita.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Nov. 7-9.


WHERE: 385 Ivy Lane, Bergenfield; stanthonysorthodox.org.

SPANAKOPITA: $20 for a tray that feeds six, $15 for a nine-inch round.

There are as many ways of making spanakopita — the flaky spinach and cheese pie — as there are Greek-owned diners in North Jersey.

But at St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bergenfield, one recipe has ruled for nearly 25 years: Yia-Yia's Spartan Style Spanakopita, a super-rich version that includes Romano cheese in addition to the usual ricotta and feta, a dash of nutmeg and flaky layers of phyllo generously brushed with clarified butter.
Yia-Yia (pronounced Ya-Ya), which means grandmother in Greek, is Angela Bogris of Paramus. For nearly two decades she served as chief spanakopita-maker for her church's International Festival, held each November. Among some 200 members of the Bergenfield church, how did Angela earn such an honor? "The priest looked me in the eye one day and said, 'You're volunteering,' " she said. "I feel very proud of the fact that they use my recipe."

Her son Jim, 60, of Fair Lawn, has since taken the reins from Yia-Yia, 86, who can no longer stir the large vats of cheese and eggs. In early September, the spanakopita team gathers in the church kitchen for three evenings to produce up to 100 trays of the savory Greek pie, enough to feed up to 700 people. On subsequent nights, there will be a moussaka and pastitsio team (baked meat and pasta dishes), a pirogi and halupki (stuffed cabbage) team and shish kebab and lamb shank team.

It's common practice for church groups to gather several weeks before a festival to prepare army-sized quantities of ethnic specialties to freeze and later sell at their event. But what makes St. Anthony's unique is the diversity of food prepared in its large industrial kitchen. As a pan-Orthodox church, founded in 1956 by Arab- and Greek-American families who wanted to worship in English, its International Festival includes family recipes from Greeks, Lebanese, Syrians, Romanians, Russians and Serbs. Such diversity sometimes leads to dueling versions of stuffed grape leaves: dolma, the Greek version, and a Middle Eastern type made with lamb and served with a side of yogurt sauce.

Robyn Ziemba, 35, who is co-chairwoman of the festival for the first time, is a perfect example of this pan-Orthodox community. Her mom is Syrian, her dad Lebanese. Her husband, whom she met as a child in the youth group at St. Anthony's, is Russian and Polish. The couple live in Hoboken, but they remain active members of the Bergenfield church.

As church food festivals are most often run by the parishes' female elders, Ziemba and her co-chairman, Rob Scarpa, 37, have made a big push this year to get the younger church members involved. "We're trying to engage the young to learn the secrets of their elders. If it doesn't get passed on, it will end," she said. The pair have also been promoting the event on Facebook and Twitter and got a PR agency to help spread the word, a first for the 37-year-old festival. "We want to bring the age demo down," Ziemba said. "If you came here like five years ago, the event looked like it was 1987."

On a recent evening, a group of about a dozen church members spent an evening preparing the cheese and spinach filling for the spanakopita, which would be layered into the strips of phyllo the following night. At the center countertop, volunteers chopped an entire sack of onions and mounds of scallions, dill and parsley. Another team in the corner stood over gigantic bowls of frozen spinach, squeezing the liquid from fist-sized balls of defrosting greens. Nearby, Jim Bogris wielded a large metal paddle, stirring up a rich concoction of ricotta, feta, Romano cheese and 24 eggs. "Nobody uses as much cheese as my recipe," he said. "Every family has a different way of making it. But people rave about our spanakopita."

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