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The best (and only?) bougatsa in Raleigh

Despina's heavenly bougatsa are baked fresh from scratch every day.
Despina's heavenly bougatsa are baked fresh from scratch every day.
Despo Georgiu

A bougatsa from Despina’s Café is a thing of beauty. You might go there for a quick bite—the roasted pork panini or the orzo salad—but you’ll leave covered in a spray of powdered sugar.

Bougatsa is a traditional Greek pastry, made from layers of phyllo dough rolled around a custard, cheese, or meat center and usually eaten piping hot, straight out of the oven, for breakfast. A large tray-sized creation while baking, in Greece it is cut in squares for serving, and sometimes into bite-sized pieces and wrapped in paper cones for portability.

Despina’s bougatsa are filled with ricotta cheese custard and rolled into delicate logs, with a generous dusting of powdered sugar on top. The crispy outer layer gives way in the burst of a noisy first bite, with the loud crunch trumpeting the creamy, subtley sweet center that follows. It’s so delicious you won’t mind the cloud of powdered sugar you’ve just inhaled or the evidence that has been deposited down the front of your shirt.

(P.S. Don’t wear black.)

The pastry’s exotic heritage—originating during the Byzantine period when Constantinople was still a Greek stronghold, then adopted by the Romans, and eventually brought to northern Greece by Turkish refugees—reflects the continental journey of Despina’s owner, Despo Georgiu. Born and raised in Cyprus, she learned to bake as a girl in her mother’s kitchen, and always found delight in the process of preparing pastries for her family and friends.

Since making her way to North Carolina, via 10 years in England where she finished her studies, met her husband, and had three children, she started a catering company in 2010. The orders for her cakes and pastries became too much to handle from home, so she opened Despina’s Café three months ago.

“The joy I get out of cooking and baking is the same joy I want to see on the faces of my customers who experience it,” she said.

Georgiu prides herself on her ability to take a traditional recipe and add her own twist, creating a unique version of a beloved, time-honored treat with the zip of her own personal touch.

So this writer’s trip to Despina’s for an Italian Rustic sandwich (roasted portabella mushrooms, marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and herbs with goat cheese, tomatoes, sliced red onions, and arugula) and Despina’s house salad (marinated chickpeas, cucumbers, and tomatoes with Georgiu’s signature lemon salad dressing) quickly devolved into a feast of bougatsa and baklava, with a slice of a heavenly almond cake (made from almonds and almond meal, filled with crème patisserie, and covered with whipped cream) to go.

The menu at Despina’s is simple—a handful of sandwiches, a few salads, soup, and the pastries—but that’s what makes it special.

“People here don't know this food so I’m slowly adding dishes and trying things out,” said Georgiu. “At first nobody knew what bougatsa was so they didn’t order them, but once they tried them they kept coming back.”

Very true, as this writer’s next trip to Despina’s, precisely to procure a heavenly bougatsa, found the display case empty, the last few having been sold ten minutes before.

All the dishes and pastries are made on site and from scratch by Georgiu. The spare dining area is comfortable and feels a bit like visiting with friends around the kitchen table (a very European custom), the counter is manned by family, and the quiet atmosphere makes it perfect for a quiet solo brunch with a good book.

Despina's Cafe is located at 8369 Creedmoor Road in North Raleigh.

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