Our travel expert has been exploring where to eat and drink in Ithaca, a peaceful Greek island known for its crystal blue sea and fresh fish. See below for our expert guide on the best restaurants, cafes and shops to visit in Ithaca. If you’re feeling inspired, check out our best ever Greek recipes here.
Run with great care by an Aussie-Greek couple, Spero and Marilyn Raftopulos – plus their (grown-up) children, Kate and Niko – this collection of four cottages plus swimming pool, is set on Spero’s family homestead, overlooking a bay in the north of the island.
Having built the estate up over 30-odd years Spero and Mal run a slick but homely operation. Bathrooms come generously stocked with Levendis’ own natural skincare products – soap, shampoo, hydrating body lotion and face serum – while cottage kitchens are pre-stocked with delicious Greek wine, olives and pistachios for that first holiday sundowner. Plus peach juice, bread, tea, coffee, milk, homemade jams, local thyme honey, freshly laid eggs and own-recipe muesli for the first morning’s breakfast.
From then on, you can either read through Mal’s painstakingly put-together list of local restaurant and grocery shopping recommendations. Or, put in an order from their menu of local chef-cooked ready meals.
Maybe a platter of meats and kebabs from the local butcher to cook on the barbecue, perhaps, a range of dips and sauces (don’t miss the fabulously fruity tapenade made with the estate’s own olives or a bowl of ktipiti, a punchy blend of caramelised onions, oregano, red peppers, feta and oregano), spoonably soft (and exceedingly fresh – it’s made just up the road) feta, a sharing dish of chicken tserepa (a slow-cooked local casserole made with chicken, tomato, garlic and feta) and a note-perfect bittersweet lemon tart made by Kate’s partner Naki with just the right balance of gooey lemon and buttery homemade pastry.
Food, as you might have gathered, is a real focus here. It helps that Kate is a nutritionist but the family have always grown their own veg. In the summer the Levendis kitchen garden ripens with tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, spring onions and vlita (a leafy green vegetable either boiled or – better – sautéed with olive oil, garlic and lemon, a common side dish served alongside grilled fish and skordhalia – garlicky mashed potatoes) while in winter lettuces, cauliflowers, cabbages, chard, kale, spinach, sorrel, peas, beans, pumpkins, onions and potatoes are all grown – and available, very reasonably, for guests to buy.
In addition, the estate opens a coffee shop between 9am and 11am each morning, serving coffees, smoothies, breakfast bowls and waffles. This also acts as a reception service of sorts; whether you want to stock up on Levendis’ homegrown olives or local bread, order a ready meal or barbecue pack, borrow a coolbox, buy some of Levendis’ natural sunscreen and insect repellent, ask Mal to put together a picnic lunch to take out with you, pick up a map of walks or just chat to fellow guests in the sun-dappled shade, this is your chance.
Many guests won’t make it beyond the Levendis gates, happy to swim in the pool, snooze in their cottage garden (each one has cleverly been designed for ultimate privacy), do a spot of yoga and borrow a book to read. Others manage a gentle amble down to one of two little coves around 10 – 20 minutes’ walk away, the routes thrumming with butterflies – and the sound of goat bells – as you wend your way past olive and cypress trees.
For getting out to local villages, restaurants and beaches, you can pedal off on one of the estate’s bikes, or make the most of the fact that all cottages come with a hire car (the only charge is for petrol) – complete with beach towels and beach bag ready to go. Sunhats are also provided for each guest, as are jelly shoes – a useful add-on when navigating the island’s pebbly, sometimes rocky, beaches.
Holistic massages can also be booked, and various guided walks, including a two-hour stroll that takes in the island’s history of olive, wheat and raisin production – and a local cheese and wine tasting.
Within walking distance of Levendis Estate, this little inland taverna, just outside the village of Stavros, is open weekends only, serving pasta, steaks, salads and burgers. Or book a table for Sunday brunch if you’re craving eggs Benedict or lemon tart. It’s also a good place for a drink… grab a table outside, beneath the bunting, and watch the world go by.
There are plenty of food shops in Stavros, from a greengrocers and a fishmongers to a basic supermarket but don’t miss the shop marked ‘General Store’. The last small family-owned grocery on the island, it’s been operating since 1930 and still has beautiful old wooden cabinets towering all the way around its walls. It’s not especially easy to navigate, so crammed is the space with everything from soap to magazines, sacks of beans to pet food, but it’s worth persevering. Among its laden shelves are beautifully packaged bars of Greek chocolate, local honey and herbs and plenty of other good foodie souvenirs.
Also in Stavros, this cheerful orange-hued cafe is the centre of local village life, in no small part thanks to owner Maria’s renowned baking skills. There are normally spinach and cheese pies on offer and, occasionally, a delicious courgette quiche but she’s also known for her rovani. A local cake made with ground rice, olive oil and honey it’s served here sliced into little diamonds with ice cream (ask for a slice from the edge of the pan for the ultimate in caramelised crunchy edging).
The closest harbourside village to Levendis is Frikes, a postcard-perfect arc of painted houses overlooking glitteringly clear water. There are plenty of cafes to choose from here but only the seriously steel-willed could miss this ice cream parlour. It sells all manner of flavoured ice creams, coffees and sundaes right by the waterside, including some interesting local flavours (pomegranate mastic anyone?), but if it’s in stock definitely try the frozen Greek yoghurt. Just beware that it’s addictively good.
A few doors down from Dodoni, with a handful of tables on Frikes’ waterfront but the majority set slightly back from the road, this chic little Italian café does great aperitivos (try the masticha, honey liqueur, lemon, lemon, cucumber and ginger) plus an imaginative range of pastas and frittatas. If you’re beginning to feel you’re close to full quota on Greek salads and tzatziki, this (or nearby Rementzo) is the place to refuel. It also does a popular line in pizzas (also available to take-away if you want to eat back at your cottage, or have supper on a beach).
Also in Frikes this traditional, slightly touristy-looking, restaurant is worth a second look. It’s known for its fish and seafood dishes but there are other discoveries to make on its menu, including deceptively plain-sounding “courgette balls”. These little fritters might look simple but they’re delicious, their nutty, burnished exterior hiding a gooey inside that’s a deliciously fresh mix of grated courgette, feta, dill and sheep’s cheese.
There are several good waterside tavernas to choose from in the village of Kioni, which, like Frikes, is a popular lunch and dinner spot for visiting yachties. For fish or seafood, grab a table at Mills (many are so close to the ouzo-clear water that you’ll be tempted to jump in for a swim after your meal), and order the fish of the day, cooked on the grill until it’s perfectly plump and flakes off the bone, with a side order of sautéed vlita: Greek holiday food at its freshest.
Just don’t try to order sardines, like we did, after a full moon; apparently all the small fish disappear for a few days. And if you’re there at the weekend stay on for dinner at the little beachside taverna on Cemetery Beach, just around the bay (don’t be put off by the name, it’s a magical spot backed by trees that slope down towards sparkling azure water).
On the road between Stavros and Vathy, the island’s capital, this cliffside restaurant and bar is perfectly placed for watching the sun slowly sink over the bay with a cool Mythos beer or a glass of honeyish local chardonnay. If you get peckish stay on for dinner, or order a platter of meats and local cheeses.
High up a mountain outside Stavros, on the way to Kathara monastery, the village of Anogi appears almost as a mirage, so surprising is it to come across this cluster of stone houses and church in what appears to be almost wilderness. Yet, traditionally, Ithacan villages were built high up, away from the coast, to protect their inhabitants from attacking pirates.
These days, it’s tourists rather than pirates who are trying to invade but the village café owner, Sophia, is perfectly happy about that. Her café, in pride of place on the village square, feels almost Provencal as old men lean on sticks and doze at tables under its canopy, and yellow butterflies chase each other in the sun.
Order a freshly squeezed orange juice, a thick Greek coffee, or a slice of spanakopita and ask Sophia to borrow the keys for the neighbouring church before continuing up the mountain to the monastery to peer at its gilded frescos and gaze out, from the base of its bell tower, across the Ionian sea and its shoal of blue-green hump-backed islands. If you’re staying in Anogi you can also book in with Sophia for evening meals.
For more information see i-escape.com or search for the hashtag #oliveeatsithaca on social media
Words | Rhiannon Batten
Images | Rhiannon Batten