The heel of the boot that is Italy dips gingerly into the Ionian Sea, a sea that in turn laps against the shores of western Greece. This is a highfalutin introduction to a simple observation: Italian and Greek food are two great tastes that go great together.
This concept is not lost on George and Rose Minas or Jimmy Minadakis, who reopened this old Highlandtown favorite last fall. Illona used to be a comfortable anomaly in Greektown, serving big portions of hearty Italian-American fare. It closed last January after the owner died.
Under the ownership of the Minases and Minadakis, Illona is still comfortable -- a great place to bring the whole family. But now it serves Greek and Italian food with American steaks thrown in for good measure.
Illona is set back from the road at the corner of Macon Street and Eastern Avenue, separated from the rest of Highlandtown by its own small parking lot. From the outside, the restaurant is just a big white box, reminiscent of nothing so much as a mobile home.
The inside looks more like a '50s rec room (knotty pine paneling, speckled linoleum floors) that has been dolled up with a few chandeliers and porcelain statues. The seating is rows of aqua diner booths. If I haven't painted a stunning picture of the place, don't be alarmed: It's got all the comfort and warmth of home, and you never have to do the dishes.
We found the best approach with the menu is to mix and match cuisines. A cup of minestrone, a cup of Greek avgolemono soup, a Greek salad and an order of fried calamari started us off. The minestrone was hearty and sustaining, albeit heavy on the celery. The avgolemono was a textbook version of this smashing Greek invention -- rich chicken broth sparked with lemon juice, thickened with egg yolk and filled with rice or orzo (in this case, orzo).
The Greek salad was gargantuan, topped with the requisite feta chunks, cucumber rounds, pepperoncini, tomatoes and calamata olives. The dressing was not the simple red-wine vinegar and oil one so often encounters, but a creamy, sweetish type redolent of oregano. The calamari were tender, greaseless and plentiful, served with a ramekin of intense marinara sauce.
"Plentiful" describes all of our entree selections, as well. A whole passel of little marinated lamb chops covered my plate, leaving room enough only for a wedge of lemon. The tender chops were escorted by a little bowl of delicious Greek-style green beans, stewed with tomato and oregano. Another lumberjack-sized pick, the veal Francese heaped breaded veal scaloppine on a plate drizzled with a simple lemon butter sauce.
Eggplant Parmesan was among our favorite dishes. Sweet slices of eggplant -- not overly breaded -- were enrobed in melted provolone and the same marinara we'd had earlier. An order of lasagna the size of a small safe proved just as appealing with its rich ricotta filling.
Dessert was a menacing thing to consider after all of our excesses, but our motherly waitress talked us into a medley of Greek, Italian and even French sweets. The cannoli triumphed over the baklava, but the chocolate mousse took the cake, so to speak.
422 S. Macon St.
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$8.95; entrees, $6.25-$29.95.
Pub Date: 4/03/97