Truckin’ it to Tarpon

A summer spent lounging on the sun-soaked beaches of Mykonos or strolling the streets of Athens may seem like the ideal vacation – for a pampered socialite. Considering that $1,876 for’s

cheapest-reported airfare is about the cost of in-state tuition for a semester, however, the average college student may have to look elsewhere for a summer getaway. For those who want to sample Mediterranean culture without taking out another loan, all it takes is a 45-minute drive to Tarpon Springs.

Greek Pizza Kitchen

Eating authentic Greek cuisine can be a little intimidating at first – especially since it’s so removed from the typical pizza-and-ramen-noodles college fare. The Greek Pizza Kitchen understands this, and it’s their alternative take on Greek food that makes the restaurant a great place to try something new, without delving too far out of one’s comfort zone.

“We prepare our traditional Greek food in a very nontraditional way,” said manager Louis Pianese. “Take, for example, the traditional gyro. It’s made with raw onions and sautéed tomatoes and served in a pita. In our version though, the onions are sautéed too for added flavor and we grill the pita.”

This approach to preparing food doesn’t stop with reinventing the gyro. Spanakopita, or spinach pie, takes on a college-palate-friendly transformation as Spanako-pizza. Here, it sheds its phyllo pastry cup in favor of a thick pizza crust, and the pie’s traditional fillings – spinach, sweet onion and feta – become the toppings on a provolone and mozzarella pizza.

I recommend the Saganaki appetizer and Chicken Florentine wrap. The saganaki, a sharp Greek cheese, is an amusing experience for any first-timer, since the cheese is presented ablaze. Drenched with flavor thanks to its special bacon sauce, the Chicken Florentine wrap has become a must-order dish for me. The wrap features spinach, feta, sautéed mushrooms and chicken marinated with Mediterranean spices, creating an array of tastes that compliment each other rather than overwhelming the eater.

The Greek Pizza Kitchen’s dark wood interior and upstairs loft seating offer a comfortable, intimate setting devoid of the over-the-top kitsch one may expect after visiting the sponge docks.

June 4 marked Greek Pizza Kitchen’s third anniversary, and to celebrate, the restaurant will be hosting happy hour from when it opens at 11:30 a.m. to close at 9 p.m. all month long. All drinks will be buy-one, get-one-free.

Lighthouse Coffee

Though there’s nothing Greek about Lighthouse Coffee, it does serve as a great escape from the infamous green glow of the Starbucks cafés that populate nearly every street corner in Tampa.

Its cappuccino-hued walls are adorned with largely local artwork cross-promoting the store’s products with that of the latest musical artists. Plush, velvet couches and stacks of magazines encourage visitors to turn their coffee break into exactly that – a break, even if momentary – from life’s hassles, rather than an energizer to help speed on to the next task.

It’s this laid-back, quiet atmosphere that I love most about Lighthouse. Well, that and the Frozen Hot Chocolate. Though some of my friends wanted to boycott the beverage due to its oxymoron name, they were soon converted into frozen hot chocolate aficionados halfway through the first sip. Somewhat like a frappuccino, the drink tastes like a blended fudgesicle topped with a dollop of whipped cream. I enjoy mine with a shot of espresso to give it a stronger flavor, but those who detest the taste of java can appreciate this beverage as-is.

Frozen Hot Chocolate isn’t the only non-coffee-related beverage offered, however. Iced lemonade, red tea, chai tea and a variety of smoothies are also available.

If the standard cup of joe is what you really crave – and hence why you’re in search of a coffee shop – an array of cappuccinos, espressos, dark roast coffees and hot and cold lattes are at your disposal. And, like that certain green-and-black-logoed coffee empire, shots of flavored syrup can be added to any beverage. Unlike that empire, however, the cost of a 20-ounce – don’t call it a Venti; this café doesn’t subscribe to that set of sizes – latte is about $3.30.

Sponge Docks

Welcome to the sponge diving capital of the world. No, seriously, there’s a sign and everything. It may sound ridiculous to an outsider, but it’s the lifeblood of Tarpon Springs, and the reason the city was founded.

Since many homeowners today outfit their kitchens with synthetic sponges, the sponge diving industry has taken on a new form – from providing a necessity to the public to becoming a tourist attraction. Shops and boutiques line the docks, selling handmade olive oil soaps, Greek jewelry and traditional clothing, quintessential tourist “My grandpa went to Florida and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” apparel and – you guessed it – natural sponges lifted right out of Tarpon’s local waters.

Though the name sounds cheesy, Spongeorama is a great place to visit to learn why Tarpon Springs values its sponge-infused history so much. The store offers a free movie on sponge diving and harvesting. It shows how intrepid men donned 170-pound suits to help them sink to the floor of the water, risking getting “the bends” – an occasionally lethal decompression sickness resulting from a diver ascending too rapidly from a dive – all to provide for his family.

Spongeorama also offers a sightseeing cruise, where patrons can explore the Gulf of Mexico while viewing Tarpon Springs’s historic sites and watching for manatees and dolphins.

Just past Spongeorama lie ample opportunities to satisfy one’s sweet tooth. On the left side of the street, nestled beneath a towering Spartan, stands Hellas bakery. The Greek eatery specializes in European pastries, from sweetened-ricotta-cheese-and-chocolate-chip-filled cannolis to crispy honey, nut and phyllo-layered baklava. All of these are prepared so beautifully that they seem a shame to eat – until your stomach convinces you what a shame it’d be not to.

If you’re not in the mood for foreign fare, head farther down the Sponge Docks to the orange-roofed Fudge Factory. All it took was one whiff while walking past the store for me to start drooling down the front of my shirt. All of the fudge is handmade at the store and contains no artificial ingredients.

Once you’ve reached your cavity-inducing limit on sugary goods and boutique-hopping, check out the Tarpon Springs Aquarium. Though small, the aquarium offers shark and stingray petting and feeding. More than 30 species of fish dwell in the aquarium’s 120,000-gallon tank. Occasionally, a diver performs a 30-minute informational show. Admission is $5, and more information can be found at

Shrine of St. Michael

Entering this shrine for the first time was a humbling experience. Though I am not Greek Orthodox, this shrine carries a presence that transcends all faiths. Maybe it’s because of the beauty of the shrine’s vibrant, intricately detailed paintings and stained glass windows depicting St. Michael.

Maybe it’s the fact that it seems so unspoiled by modern life. It’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the heart of Tarpon Springs, far from giant corporate buildings and the hustle of city life.

Most likely though, it’s the story behind the shrine.

After suffering from severe headaches, an 11-year-old boy was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor, according to a 2003 article by the St. Petersburg Times. It was 1939, and the boy, Steve Tsalichis, was given 24 hours to live. Steve slept that night clutching an icon of St. Michael, and dreamt that the saint had visited him, promising Steve good health and asking him to build a shrine in his memory.

The next morning, Steve could walk around the room, and an examination by a doctor at St. Joseph’s Hospital declared him to be cured. Steve is now 79 years old. Out of gratitude, the shrine was erected in 1941. Since its opening, others have reported witnessing miracles occur within the shrine. “We have people who sleep here overnight, chant and say the prayers of St. Michael because he is known for doing miracles on the eve of St. Michael’s,” Goldie Parr, Tsalichis’ sister, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003. “People have walked out without their crutches, been cured of cancers and couples who couldn’t conceive have had babies. It’s very interesting.”

Steve Tsalichis’ mother, Marie, has provided a firsthand account of the events leading to the shrine’s creation to the St. Michael Academy Orthodox Bible College. The testimony can be read at

Mama Maria’s The name isn’t just a cute gimmick to make the restaurant sound more homespun. There really is a Mama Maria, and she really is in the kitchen, slicing tomatoes for her Greek salads and adding cinnamon to her Greek-style spaghetti sauce. For anyone who can’t simply stop by their Yia Yia and Papou’s – Greek for grandmother and grandfather’s – house for authentic Greek cuisine, this is the next-best place to visit. Each recipe has been handed down from generation to generation, preserved throughout the decades within the restaurant.

Mama Maria decided to open the restaurant in 1978, after the bends crippled her husband, John “Sfeeka” Koursiotis, ending his sponge diving career, according to The restaurant has since flourished by being embraced by the Greek community and by tourists who want to sample Greek food in its most traditional form.

One of Mama’s specialties, pastitso, is so decadent that it’s worth splitting with a friend. The layers of macaroni, meat sauce and cheese and béchamel sauce topping are incredibly rich – so much so that I refuse to find out how many thousands of calories exist in each serving.

Saganaki is also offered here, as well as a shrimp saganaki that includes all of the pyrotechnics of the former but paired with sautéed shrimp and tomatoes.

If you’re feeling exceptionally adventurous, the restaurant offers whole charbroiled snapper – which, if you dined with my Yia Yia, would involve her fighting you to eat its brain or pan-fried smelts. The dish consists of small fish you eat whole, bones and all.

And if, for whatever reason, you lose your sense of adventure upon perusing the menu, cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches are available.