Pauline Spiliadis knows what it's like to go without. "I was raised on nothing glorious at all," Spiliadis says about the food she ate growing up in a small town in Bavaria with her British mother and German father. During the Second World War, fresh food was scarce, rationed, or completely unavailable. "Cooking was not very high on my mother's list."
It wasn't until after Spiliadis moved to Baltimore, in 1960, and met her husband, a Greek grad student named Stelios Spiliadis, while working as a librarian at Johns Hopkins, that she learned to cook. Her mother-in-law taught her Greek dishes and opened her eyes to a world of fresh food and new ingredients.
"Learning to cook was a journey of incredible discovery," she says. "I learned about vegetables, like the eggplant, that I would have never known what to do with." Spiliadis passed her new love of food onto her son Dimitris.
Growing up in Mount Washington, Dimitris says his mother's cooking was "better than in any restaurant." And there was always plenty of food on hand, as his mother was nervous about the possibility of wartime deprivation.
"Food's the one thing we always had and always prepared well," he says. "The food was the glue that held us together. . . . As a kid, everyone wanted to come to my house for dinner, and I didn't have an Atari."
In 1997, Pauline quit her job working as a librarian at the Enoch Pratt to open her own restaurant, the Black Olive in Fells Point, offering the kind of cuisine her mother-in-law taught her in what she describes as a traditional Greek fish tavern. Dimitris, fresh out of college, became her business partner, but the mother and son team didn't see eye to eye on one very key issue.
Dimitris insisted that they pay hefty prices for organic vegetables, meats, and other ingredients (sometimes up to 200 percent more than inorganic products). Pauline feared the expenditures, but Dimitris' passion won out over Pauline's frugality. Now, in addition to using lots of local, organic produce, the Spiliadises have buyers on the Yucatan Peninsula who snatch up and send grouper and octopus from local fishermen. As a result, the Black Olive is known for the quality of its fish. A case with each day's offerings sits in front of the open kitchen. Before diners make their orders a waiter brings them to the case and describes each fish, where it came from, and how it tastes in great detail, along with how it will be prepared that night.
The fish and organic ingredients are expensive, but Dimitris thinks it's worth it and the diners who flock to the Black Olive seem to agree.