food

Shari Bitsis, of Seekonk, carries a tray of freshly made baklava, a favorite sweet Greek pastry, to the pastry counter as the 92nd Grecian Festival celebrating the music, spirit, culture and cuisine, of Greece, at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church kicked off in Pawtucket Friday.

PAWTUCKET — After all the work put in by parish volunteers, it was no surprise the 92nd Grecian Festival at the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church at 97 Walcott St. was another success this weekend.

Friday evening’s kickoff was blessed by perfect weather, but finding a parking spot in the Quality Hill District was a bit of a challenge with all the festivalgoers getting an early start to the three-day offering of authentic Greek food, traditional Greek dance performances, and an assortment of market and children’s activities, such as face painting and rock climbing.

Not to be outdone was the cooking and the dance performances by the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek Pride of Rhode Island Dance Troupe.

At the festival on Friday, Nancy Georgitis, co-director of the youth dance troupe, said its 50 to 60 performers begin practicing their routines for the local parish festival and several others in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in June and continue until the mid-August start of the festival.

“It is a huge draw. People come from all over New England to see them,” Georgitis, a member of the troupe herself for 25 years, noted.

The shows at the festival help pay for the costs of the costumes as the audience will give money to the dancers during the performances, Georgitis said. The money is used to buy the traditional Greek costumes used by the troupe which can top $2,500 to purchase and ship from Greece, she noted.

All of the regions of Greece and its islands are represented in the dancing and costumes, some of a lighter design from the islands and the more heavier woolen and velvet materials from the mainland and mountains, she explained.

The junior troupe, made up of dancers ages 7 to 12, performed at 4 p.m. on festival days and the senior troupe, dancers 12 and over, performed at 7 p.m.

By learning the dances that they recite, the parish youth also learn about the Greek language and the stories that are included in the lyrics of traditional Greek songs, Georgitis said.

“We try to teach them about the dances of the various regions, what the songs mean, and all of that,” she said.

Patti Panichas, president elect of the parish’s Philotochos ladies group, said this year’s festival also benefited from the cooking its volunteers put in for all of the special treats such as Baklava, Spanakopita (spinach pie) and the full meals that could be found under the festival’s food tent.

As was the case in past years, the women of the parish prepare all the pastries and baked goods, and the men cook the roast lamb shanks and roasted chicken offered in the main dishes.

The festival menu includes Gyros, Souvlaki, Rice Pilaf, Tiropitas (cheese pie), Pastitsio (Greek lasagna), Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and Moussaka (Greek casserole).

“The food is all made here on the premises, Panichas said. “We have a commercial kitchen and the ladies of the parish pick all the grape leaves locally,” she noted.

Panichas grows grape vines in her own yard just for the festival, she said, something she has done for years.

Like many other volunteers, Panichas has a family connection the festival that was passed down from her parents and relatives.

“My dad, Peter Panichas, volunteered at the festival and all of my family did,” she said. “My mother, Helen, would sell tickets,” she said.

Panichas said she learned how to cook and roll grape leaves with her cousin, Kay Matook, who had also grown them at home for the festival.

The festival is the parish’s biggest fundraiser of the year and depends on good crowds to be successful.

“When the weather is good, we do fantastic. People come from all over,” she said.

Assumption is one of just three Greek Orthodox parishes in Rhode Island, and the parishioners often go to each other’s parish festivals, she noted.

“This is our 92nd year and I think ours in the longest running in Rhode Island,” she said.

In the kitchen on Friday, Teddy Georgitis, Nancy’s brother, and George Foussekis, president of the parish council, were making sure everything was ready with the popular dining offerings of the weekend.

“My father Nicholas and his friends, the elders of the parish, ran the kitchen when I was growing up and when he passed 13 years ago, I and my friends in the parish stepped up and took it over,” Georgitis said.

“The older generation was no longer around and we kept it going,” he said.

“It’s a great festival and big enough for us,” Georgitis said of the three-day event.

Foussekis said he has lost count of how many festivals he has worked at, but expects it to be just about all of them since joining the parish in 1973.

“They are the biggest fundraisers for the parish and we focus on using the money for improving our buildings and major expenses,” he said.

Getting everyone involved also helps to keep the parish’s traditions continuing on to the next generation, he added.

“We try to keep the language, the heritage and the faith for the younger generations so that they can takeover,” Foussekis said.

“We take a big pride in our heritage and our faith and do everything we can to teach it to our children and our grandchildren,” he said.

Lori Lemieux and her family were not members of the parish, but that didn’t stop them from visiting the Grecian Festival just up the street from their home in the neighborhood.

“It’s my 55th birthday and I came here for the baklava,” she said. “We’ve come here almost every year since we moved here,” she added.

Lemieux’s husband, Normand, visiting along with their boys, Jordan and Zack, said he was also fond of the festival’s foods. His preferences?

“I love the grape leaves and the rice pudding,” he said.

Emily Maher, another resident of the neighborhood, said she and her family have been going to the festival at 97 Walcott Street since she was a child.

“The food is great and the dancing is even better,” Maher said while carrying her niece, Tegan, onto the festival grounds.

Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75

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