The Naughty Greek in Merriam Park, St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Naughty Greek is crushing it.

The shop feels vibrant and full; it’s bright and airy, cheerfully painted with white and blue iconographic art that evokes Greece; the staff are friendly, helpful, and numerous; and the food is bold and balanced. We could end the review here, with an exhortation that all who read this will be rewarded by a visit to this shop, but we’ll take a moment to dig into exactly what’s going right, as it’s worth understanding (and emulating, should you happen to be in the food business).

Let’s begin with the most mundane aspect of The Naughty Greek’s success: the pita. We chatted with Angelo Giovanis, the shop’s cheerful and omnipresent owner, and he said it’s one of the few things not made in house. Instead, he buys pitas that are revived through a turn on the grill with Greek virgin olive oil, oregano, and lemon juice. It works. The gyros of The Naughty Greek come cradled in warm, soft, flavorful bread. If you’ve ever had dry, cardboardlike pita — and we all have, unfortunately — you’ll understand just how lovely a good version of the bread can be. (See also: Gyropolis, another shop that does pita justice.)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Both of the gyros we tried (chicken and pork) were successful. The pork, through meat that was rich and tender, the chicken through a fantastic (and not excessive) grill-imparted char that lent depth and drama to what could have been a simple sandwich. A proper application of garlic- and cucumber-infused yogurt tzatziki gives lightness and tang to the sandwich without drowning it or sogging it into pieces, and delicate wisps of raw onion give a bit of crunch and assertive flavor without savaging the palate.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We tried the Original Greek ($8.50, above) and Kale ($7.50) salads, and they’re lovely accompaniments to heavier parts of the menu. They’re light, simple, classic, and balanced, uniting bits of creamy cheese, tangy acid, and fresh-tasting vegetables.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

The other major revelation about The Naughty Greek is the desserts. The Call Me Fluffy (Loukoumades) ($5) are described as “fluffy mini donuts served warm with Greek thyme honey, cinnamon and powdered sugar” but they’re closer to the offspring of a beignet married to a hunk of State Fair funnel cake. They’ve got a beignet’s shape and something of its tender interior, but the exterior is crunchier and rougher, and it lacks the beignet’s elasticity. The thyme honey and cinnamon dipping sauce is delightful, and the combination with the warm doughnuts is a happy one indeed.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

Better still — and we really liked the mini-doughnuts — was Yia Yia’s Orange Filo Cake ($5). Every once in a while (see also: the brownies J.D. Fratzke made for us in the Boundary Waters) we stumble upon a dessert so accomplished that it actually makes us lose our cool. The genius of the Orange Filo Cake is its texture, which is tender and spongelike, richly infused with the flavors of orange, cinnamon, and honey. There’s nothing pretentious about this dessert, but that’s its genius — it’s just straight-up, unapologetically delicious.

With its crisp, clean design, carefully tailored menu, and firing-on-all-thrusters attitude, The Naughty Greek may be angling to franchise. Giovanis gave us a charmingly ambiguous answer when we asked him about it: “Since we have opened, we have had many customers ask us to open in different neighborhoods, so if all goes well, I would love to find new locations to spread our good food and expand our customer base, but this is way too early for us to be thinking of this. My focus is to keep working on improving our products and making our customers happy.”

Down the road, then, perhaps! The world could use more food with this much sense of purpose and balance.

The Naughty Greek
Greek in Merriam Park, St. Paul
Rating: ★★★½ (excellent)

181 North Snelling Ave
St. Paul, MN 55104
OWNER / CHEF: Angelo Giovanis
Tue-Thu 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Mon closed
BAR: Beer and wine
ENTREE RANGE: $7.50-$20
PARKING: Limited street parking