Where best to experience Corfu’s myriad cultural influences on a plate? Local chef Spyros Kontopoulos has got you covered.
As a former colony of Venice, Corfu is renowned for its beguiling mix of Greek and Italian culture – especially when it comes to food. Eschewing the Ottoman influence of the mainland, Corfu has earned a reputation for its fiercely original cuisine that celebrates the island’s longstanding Italian influences, as well as its rich local fishing and farming heritage.
Spyros Kontopoulos is the founder and former head chef at the Venetian Well, one of the island’s plushest dining establishments. He spoke to Culture Trip about his 10 favourite Corfu restaurants, ranging from gourmet institutions to enduring family tavernas hidden in the island’s mountain villages.
Where better to start than with Spyros’s old haunt? The Venetian Well is a Corfu institution, offering a gourmet twist on island specialities, with an occasional nod towards Asia and Western Europe. The restaurant sits in an atmospheric small square in the heart of the Old Town, next to the eponymous well itself, and part of the fun is simply trying to find it by wandering the city’s beautiful – if labyrinthine – streets (maps are largely useless here – ask a local for directions). Spyros – who may, admittedly, be a little biased – refers to it as “the most romantic setting in Corfu”.
Head chef Aristotelis Mengoulas was born to a Greek father and a French mother and spent time learning his trade in the kitchens of Bologna, Italy. It’s these influences that have allowed him to create this pan-Mediterranean fusion restaurant, albeit one which uses seasonal Corfiot ingredients. Located on a small terrace in the Old Town, Pomo d’Oro offers “some very interesting and special fusion dishes,” says Spyros, “and a very informed list of Greek wines”.
Located down one of Corfu’s famous “kantounia”, as the Old Town’s narrow alleyways are known, Marina’s is a popular family-owned place near the old port. The food is authentically homemade and very Corfiot – try dishes such as pastitsada (pasta served with rooster and tomato sauce) and bourdeto (fish cooked in a spicy red pepper sauce). “Honest ingredients and honestly priced,” says Spyros, “You really feel like you’re in grandma’s kitchen.”
Stazei Meli translates as “dripping honey”, which goes some way to describing the modus operandi of this speciality dessert café. Waffles, pancakes and a variety of Greek sweets are all available here. Spyros reckons it’s the best dessert place in Corfu Town and highly recommends the loukoumades (a type of Greek donut) dripping in the café’s locally sourced honey. “The dessert here is something else!” opines Spyros.
Moving away from town and into the heavily forested Corfu interior, we come to the Taverna Stamatis in the village of Viros. “Passed from grandfather to grandson, this taverna is a well-kept secret for those who know,” says Spyros. Try the sofrito – a typical Corfiot dish consisting of veal marinated in garlic and vinegar and usually served with fries. The decor is a pleasing mix of eccentric and cosy.
Few tourists make it out to the workaday farming village of Temploni, but those who do will be rewarded by one of Corfu’s best tavernas. “I especially like the ambience here,” says Spyros, “with a shady, canopied courtyard and a vintage Corfiot interior.” With a large menu (including plentiful vegetarian options), generous portions and live music on Saturday nights, this is a place well worthy of a detour.
“The seafood restaurant in Corfu,” exclaims Spyros. Located in the coastal village of Benitses, Klimataria was founded by the Bellos family in 1997 – and they remain in the kitchen to this day. Make sure you try the typically Corfiot bianco – a white fish drizzled in a lemon, oil and garlic sauce. It’s a simple recipe, but one in which the skills of the chef are most discernible. The restaurant is small, and booking is essential. “And after all that, they have the best pavlova I’ve ever tasted!” says Spyros.
Considering how heavy the Venetian influence is on Corfu, you would naturally expect the island to be full of Italian restaurants. While most are fairly run-of-the-mill, new arrival Mare Azzurro has quickly established itself on the island’s gastronomic map. It’s located in Ipsos, a coastal village popular with Italian tourists, and its romantic setting sees its tables and chairs spill out onto the beach to within touching distance of the tide. While the fish and vegetables are local, the manager imports all the pasta from Italy, and the friendly waiters will often welcome you with a free glass of prosecco. “Probably the only real Italian restaurant on Corfu,” says Spyros. “Don’t leave the island before you visit!”
A foodie favourite on the island, Evdemon is located in the clifftop village of Afionas. Overlooking the Diapontia archipelago, which marks Greece’s northwestern-most point, Evdemon has “one of the most beautiful sunset views on the island,” according to Spyros. He also highly rates the food, which he says “strikes the right balance between gourmet and grandma’s kitchen”. The owners, Yiannis and Evangelia, are popular figures on the island and are known for their commitment to organic food and locally sourced ingredients. Despite this, it will be the breathtaking Ionian vista that lingers most in the mind after you leave.
Located in the tumbledown village of Kato Korakiana, Etrusco is the only truly world-class restaurant on Corfu. It has won the prestigious Golden Cap (Greek gastronomy’s highest honour) seven years running, and its chef, the Greek-Italian Ettore Botrini, is a national celebrity, presenting Greece’s version of Hell’s Kitchen. Although based mostly in his Michelin-star Athens restaurant, Botrini decamps to his home island of Corfu every summer to head up the kitchen at Etrusco. “This is the most spectacular restaurant on Corfu,” says Spyros. It is also the most expensive, although Spyros says it is worth every penny. Botrini’s culinary innovations are too many to list, but they include a “black” reimagining of the traditional dish bianco (the name of which means “white” in Italian), and a Greek salad deconstructed into a gazpacho. “This place is really worth it,” says Spyros, “It is some of the most inspired, innovative, creative food I have ever experienced. I am in awe.”