story and photos by Bakery Boy
“I grew up immersed in Greek culture in an extended family of Greek immigrants,” the North Carolina native says. “Our house was always full of people cooking and baking. Everything we ate was Greek. It was only natural to see a whole lamb roasting or deep pans of orzo baking or big trays of baklava coming out of the oven. My mother, Helen, is an excellent cook and baker. My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other relatives are good cooks. Some were even in the restaurant business.”
That tasty upbringing and a lot of world traveling to improve upon her inherited culinary talents are Asheville’s gain now that Maria owns and operates Filo as a bakery and café where artwork lines the walls and people linger coffeehouse style.
MARIA’S PATH “I went off to college with no interest in the food business,” Maria says, a little embarrassed now by the diversion from what has become her passion. “I studied anthropology and biology and thought about going into rehabilitation therapy. Then I remembered how much fun it is to be in a kitchen full of people who love cooking and baking.”
Memories of extended trips at age 8 and 18 to Greece, spending a month on the Greek mainland (her mom’s roots) and a month on the isle of Cyprus (her dad’s homeland) helped solidify Maria’s interest in all things Greek. “Later as an adult I traveled four more times to Greece, four times to France, and once each to Spain, Italy, and Germany to learn about the cuisine,” she says.
She completed the pastry program at the prestigious French Culinary Institute in New York and worked for five years in Manhattan restaurants such as Orso Restaurant (Italian), Tabla (Indian-American fusion), and the trendy Lipstick Café. She also arranged a six-week stint in a bakery in Beziers in southeastern France.
“I came home to Asheville ready to have my own place,” she says. “I opened Filo five years ago in a sturdy stone building that used to be an American Legion Post, right across the street from the Veterans Administration Hospital. My brother Nick owns the East Village Grille, a restaurant and sports bar beside Filo. I live in the same house I grew up in, along with my mother, and Nick lives in the house next door, so you can see we’re a very close-knit family.”
DIGGING IN People settle in and linger at Filo like they would at a friend’s living room or a good coffeehouse (Maria brews fresh-ground beans supplied by Counter Culture Coffee in Durham). Conversations drift from couples and small groups gathered at café tables. “I try to create a sense of community, like what I saw in small bakeries and cafes in Greece and France,” Maria says. “I love it when any kind of local organization decides to hold meetings here, especially if they like what I’ve made for them to eat.”
Showcases teem with goodies, Greek and otherwise. The spanakopita features spinach, feta, and eggs, of course, but also leeks (Maria’s secret ingredient) and Swiss chard when she can pick it fresh from her own vegetable garden or find it at the nearby Black Mountain Farmers Market.
She makes Greek wedding cookies loaded with butter and rolled in powdered sugar. There’s kourabeides (a sweet shortbread); galaktoboureko (baked phyllo layered with custard and baked again); kataifi (shredded phyllo soaked in syrup), and baklava (the classic Greek pastry with layers of phyllo, chopped nuts, honey she buys locally from Haw Creek Honey, and clove dots on top for accent). On Tuesdays she makes whole-wheat pita bread to go with her mother’s always-in-demand hummus.
Beyond her signature Greek specialties, Maria also makes excellent flourless mocha tortes, chocolate mousse cakes, blueberry almond cheesecakes, cranberry walnut pies, key lime tarts, a variety of brownies and biscotti, crusty baguettes and more. At lunchtime oven-fresh calzones made with basil-and-rosemary-laced dough folded over roasted red peppers, red onions, mushrooms, artichokes, collard greens, ricotta, and other fresh ingredients create an irresistible aroma. By special order, she even mounts amazing wedding cake projects.
WHAT’S THAT? When I visited, Maria’s changes-daily sticky buns came piled high with cranberries and pumpkin seeds or with raisins and walnuts, the bottoms oozing baked butter and sugar.
The beignets, denser and chewier than most and with swirling layers inside, took me by surprise. What’s her secret? “They’re made from leftover croissant dough, balled up and deep fried and tossed in powdered sugar,” Maria explains.
Another innovation, based on something she discovered during a trip to Barcelona, Spain, involves candied spaghetti squash wrapped in croissant dough, deep fried, and rolled in granulated sugar.
“Clearly I like dealing with sugar more than with protein,” she says, flashing a mischievous smile. For that, the sweet-toothed say thanks.
1155 Tunnel Road, Asheville, NC 28805
Monday-Thursday 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
From I-40 in East Asheville take Exit 55, go briefly north on Porter Cove Road to a “T” intersection, turn left on Tunnel Road, go west about 1.5 miles (passing the Blue Ridge Parkway) and look for Filo on the left in a stout stone building.
For more about Asheville: www.exploreasheville.com
For more about North Carolina: www.visitnc.com