Hell’s Kitchen, once one of New York’s most rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, now has more high-rise condominiums than dive bars. But some things never change.
The Poseidon Bakery on 9th Avenue near West 44th Street has been a neighborhood fixture for more than 85 years. The Greek pastry shop is like an extension of the owner’s kitchen. Lili Fable, who runs the bakery with her son Paul, called her family “quintessential shopkeepers” because she still lives upstairs with her husband Anthony. Even Paul lives in the building with his wife and children.
Anthony’s family started the business in what is now the Port Authority Bus Terminal. When his father’s bakery was evicted by the city in the early 1950s to build the terminal, they moved to the spot near 44th Street.
“In those years you couldn’t fight the city,” Lili said.
Anthony’s father bought the entire building at 629 9th Avenue. The bakery has been in that location since 1952.
“We have staying power,” Lili said.
Many new restaurants have opened over the past few years, but Lili didn’t think they would last.
A new gourmet pizzeria is opening on the corner, she said, and their rent is nearly $12,000 a month.
“How much pizza do you have to sell?” she said.
Lili said she didn’t know how Poseidon would have survived if they had to pay the astronomical rents the neighborhood now commands.
The bakery’s homey atmosphere has also contributed to its staying power. Lili keeps photographs of her grandkids behind the counter, and drawings they’ve made in school on the refrigerator.
The musty smell of fermentation emanated from a back room where phyllo dough is made. Poseidon is the only bakery in the country that makes phyllo dough by hand.
Large, mold-green bricks lined the baking room, and the windows were too cracked and dirty to let in much light.
“Phyllo means leaf in Greek,” Lili said as she smoothed her hand over one of the tissue thin sheets of dough.
The sheets of dough were placed between layers of raw, unbleached muslin on two large tables. Extra muslin hung on a clothes line strung across the back wall. An industrial clothes dryer stood by to keep the muslin bone dry on humid days. Otherwise, the dough would stick to it.
Nata and Eric, Lili’s employees, make phyllo all day long. Nata stood on the flour-covered floor, rolling out dough balls called boulakas to the size of large, thin pizzas. He listened to a Spanish language radio station and sung along to the music as he worked.
“Nata’s been doing this for 35 years,” Lili said.
Lili brought finished phyllo into the next room where all the pastries were assembled and baked.
Kaila, 19, is the only one who assists Lili with making pastries. She wore lavender Crocs and listened to an iPod while making flogera, phyllo cylinders stuffed with custard and nuts.
Kaila started working at Poseidon last October, and learned how to make all of the pastries in two days. Even though the hours can be long, especially around the holidays, she loves her job.
“Lili’s like a mother to me,” she said, “and boy, can she cook!”
Kaila’s specialty is making miniature pastries, or cocktails, that are popular for parties. But her handiwork was suddenly interrupted.
“Kai-LA!” Eric, her boyfriend, yelled from the phyllo room.
She rolled her eyes and asked “Que pasa?” before returning to her post.
While Kaila worked quickly, Lili wrapped vegetable pies called Menina mash at lightning speed. Lili’s mother-in-law Menina invented the pie to get her children to eat vegetables.
Lili methodically brushed phyllo with melted butter from a coffee can, stuffed it with spinach, and folded the package into a triangle. A stack of finished trays multiplied by her elbow.
“I love how green these veggies came today!” Lili said, pausing to admire her work. “Emerald green, St. Patty’s Day green!”
Soon, the pastries were ready for the oven. Lili called the two ceiling-high ovens “Vulcan,” after the Greek god of fire. She and her husband couldn’t agree whether they are 80 or 100 years old, but they looked like they could easily be older.
The heat of the huge cast iron furnaces can be felt from at least five feet away, and usually kept Lili away.
“They’re too tall and I’m afraid of getting burned,” she said.
But the day was cold and the ovens warmed the back room.
“It’s so cold out,” she said. “I need to go sit by the oven.”
The pastries already baking inside smelled like Christmas, emitting a scent of cinnamon and cloves.
The doorbell rang, signaling that a customer had entered. Lili shuffled in her battered black clogs from the baking room to the front counter to assist the customer. Trays of pastries fresh from the “Vulcan” beckoned: spanakopita, baklava, cherry cheese strudel and kounbiedes cookies.
Lili put up a pot of coffee and offered some to everyone. She put some pies in the oven to get warm.
“Anthony, I need a meat pie, too,” she called to her husband in the baking room.
A middle-aged man in a red and black plaid jacket perused the pastry cases as the half-century old refrigerators wheezed.
“Take your time, we have all the savories in the oven,” Lili said.
He was visiting his son, a Juilliard student, who lives nearby. He requested a cherry strudel and a spinach pie.
“I just put a pot of coffee on,” Lili told him. “You interested in coffee?”
He wasn’t, but soon the mailman arrived. He announced his presence by yanking open the front door and yelling “Mailman!”
Lili said “o-pa!” as she lifted a heavy tray. She greeted the mailman and the rest of her customers with a cheery “Hello!”
The ancient teal cash register opened with a “ping!” as miniature busts of Greek philosophers watched over the proceedings. Replicas of ancient Greek vases and signed headshots of celebrity fans like Ernie Anastos and Olympia Dukakis were mixed in.
But Poseidon still caters to a local, family clientele, not just celebrities.
Lili said some families have been coming back for three generations, especially to buy traditional Greek Easter cakes.
“Every Greek family in creation must have a koulouda,” she said. Koulouda is a braided sweet bread with dyed red eggs baked into it that is eaten at Easter.
Even though customers may have moved away, the bakery will ship items anywhere in the United States. Lili has sent packages to Maine, Hawaii, Colorado and Puerto Rico. But her most unusual request was for a family who wanted to bring her pastries back to Greece with them.
Though Poseidon might not ship anything back to the motherland this Easter, the pace of the bakery’s work will pick up quickly in the coming weeks.
“Work hard, play a little, work hard, play a little,” Lili said about the bakery’s schedule.
With Greek Easter only a month away, Lili and her employees were relishing the calm before the storm.
“Right now,” she said, “we’re just going about our lives as we always have.”