Almost every day, Menelaos “Manny” Kaminaris wakes up at 3 a.m. and begins building the 55-pound towers of thinly-sliced, layered meat that, eventually, will end up as the slow-cooked, juicy, flavorful pork filling for the gyros served at his Ellsworth restaurant, Manny’s Greek Grill.
Once gyro pork preparation is over, though, Kaminaris is far from done with prep for the day. There’s hundreds of pounds of potatoes to cut into fries; vegetables to chop; gallons of creamy, cucumber-y tzatziki sauce to mix up.
By the time Kaminaris is ready to open the restaurant at 11 a.m., he’s eight hours into what’s usually a 16-hour day. Right now, it’s just him in the kitchen, making the classic Greek food he and his family have been eating all their lives — gyros, souvlaki, baklava and other goodies, served up fast and hot from behind the diner-style counter.
“All day, I make food. Everything from scratch. Everything fresh,” said the gregarious, high energy Kaminaris, who emigrated from Greece to the U.S. (Hancock County, specifically) in 2010 with his wife, Stacy Roguski. “This has been my dream for years. Years and years. Now, it’s finally happening. And people love it.”
Since opening the first week of August in the Mill Mall just off Route 1, Manny’s has been busier than Kaminaris could have ever hoped for. On weekends, there have been lines out the door. Early on, they would run out of food by the time lunch was over — until Kaminaris upped his gyro meat preparation from one 55-pound rotisserie tower to three.
“I can’t believe it. But I’m happy,” said Kaminaris. “I try to make this a happy place. I remember everybody. I remember when people come back. They can’t believe I remember them, but I do. People like that.”
The gyro sandwich — which Kaminaris takes pains to make sure is pronounced “yee-ro” — is likely the most famous of the staples of Greek cuisine. At Manny’s, the gyros are made with pork, rather than beef or lamb. Kaminaris says that in Greece, pork or chicken is much more traditionally used as the meat filling; lamb is reserved for special occasions.
The Manny’s gyro is then filled with tomato, onion and lettuce, a generous spread of housemade tzatziki sauce, and, in another Greek twist, a handful of French fries. It might sound rather American, but in Greece, fries are a pretty traditional garnish. The result is a sandwich that’s savory, very filling and explosively flavorful — and at $7, it’s a great deal, too.
Kaminaris grew up on the island of Kefalonia, part of the Ionian Islands off the eastern coast of Greece. It was there he met his future wife, Roguski, who grew up in a Greek family in Canada but has ties to the Blue Hill area; she moved to Greece as an adult. It was there they fell in love, and married in 2007. In 2009, when a debt crisis decimated the Greek economy, the couple decided to move to Maine with their twin daughters.
“I moved here for love,” said Kaminaris. “But now I can have my dream.”
They ended up settling in Trenton, and after a few years of living and working in the Ellsworth area — Roguski teaches third grade at the Blue Hill Consolidated School — Kaminaris began exploring the option of opening a restaurant. It was something he’d wanted to do for as long as he could remember, but it simply wasn’t an option in Greece.
The couple looked in the area for the right location for nearly a year, until settling on the long-vacant storefront at the north end of the Mill Mall, across from Dunkin’ Donuts. Kaminaris did most of the work renovating the 24-seat space, installing huge, panoramic images of Greece on the walls, adding in sparkly gold diner stools at the counter, and building the open kitchen, so diners can ask questions of Kaminaris as he prepares their meals.
Also in the restaurant is a huge replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David — which, despite it being Italian, not Greek, seems to fit in with the decor. Out of modesty, Roguski has hot-glued grape leaves to the statue’s groin, though Kaminaris claims that some customers peek underneath it to see whether or not the statue is a true replica.
Aside from the gyros, which Kaminaris says are the most popular menu item by far, the souvlaki — pork or chicken shish kabobs, served with a pita — is also popular. So are the Greek fries, which are fresh cut fries served with crumbled feta cheese, imported Greek olive oil and oregano. There are several salads on the menu (Greek-style and garden), appetizers like warm pita dippers with tzatziki and imported Greek olives and feta, and desserts including Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream with honey and walnuts, and homemade baklava. In the coming weeks, as the weather gets cooler, avgolemono, a tangy, lemony Greek soup, will also come onto the menu, and Kaminaris also plans to offer lamb specials.
Though you can eat-in at Manny’s, customers generally order things as takeout, and front of house manager Lily Cox greets almost all of them, every day. She and Kaminaris have to hustle to make sure everyone gets what they want — though they’ve only been open for six weeks, Cox routinely takes huge, $200 orders for offices that all want gyros for lunch.
“Manny is the hardest worker I know. He’s put everything into this business, and so far, it’s really paid off,” said Cox. “Everybody loves him. He’s such a nice guy. He’s just the best.”
Manny’s Greek Grill is open from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; it’s closed on Sundays. For takeout orders, call 412-0981.