Fotios Stamos Keeps the Party Going

Fotios Stamos, 50, grew up at Brothers, his parents’ diners on Causeway Street by the old Boston Garden and in Andrew Square. They really wanted him to go to college and land a steady job, though. So he went to Boston College and worked in finance for a while, but cubicle life was lacking.

He linked up with Stellar Importing, a friend’s wine business, selling little-known Greek wines. In the early 2000s, he went on to Legal Sea Foods and Meze Estiatorio in Charlestown, designing an all-Greek wine list. Now he’s the beverage director for Mazi, the South End group behind three of the neighborhood’s toughest tables: Kava, Ilona, Gigi, and soon, Desnuda Cocina. He lives in Danvers and has two young kids. He still loves Greek wine, as well as salty potato chips.

Tell me about Mazi’s restaurants.
Our first restaurant opened back in 2017: Kava Neo-Taverna, a Greek concept. Kava is a very casual representation of Greek cuisine. It’s quaint, cute, romantic, and fun. We have a small bar program because it’s a small space, we have a small [number] of wines relative to the other restaurants. But in those selections are wines from small producers from different regions of Greece, with the highlight being Santorini … It’s pretty much comfort; the simple representations of Greek cuisine.

The second in line is Ilona, which is on the corner of Mass. Ave and Tremont in the South End, which has more Eastern European and Middle Eastern influences. Last year, we purchased Giacomo’s restaurant on Columbus in the South End. We did a revamp and reintroduced the space as Gigi, which is Italian. Number four is in the works soon, also on Tremont. It’s Desnuda Cocina, more of a Latin- and Asian-infused concept, with ceviche and a raw bar. Music will be a big part of the ambience as well.

What does a beverage director do every day?
As the beverage director, my responsibility is to oversee all of our programs: our wine list, our cocktail lists, our relationships with our vendors, constantly sourcing products and leveraging our relationships to be able to bring in products that are going to be unique to our concepts.

Curating programs is the first phase. The second phase is allowing all of our incoming staff to get on board with our beverage culture. I host a lot of training sessions, workshops, and seminars where our staff first and foremost are able to speak to our beverage program with every guest, whether it’s at a table or at the bar.

What makes your beverage program unique? What will the average reader drink when they go to your restaurants?
You’re going to be exposed to wines and spirits and liquors that are mainly handmade. When I say handmade, they’re usually from small producers, mainly family-owned operations, where they grow their own crops. They make their own products, and they control the quality themselves.

Let’s talk about you. How did you get into this field?
I’m born and raised in Boston. I hail from Roslindale. I come from an immigrant family, a classic Greek family in the restaurant business. I grew up in the industry myself, peeling potatoes, washing dishes.

Back in the ‘70s, my dad had breakfast joints, Brothers, in Andrews Square in South Boston and Causeway Street by TD Garden. I grew up in that era of immigrant families in the food business. I learned about hospitality from my dad: back of the house, front of the house. This allowed me to learn the mechanics of running restaurants.

The ironic part of this is that, as I was going to school and working part-time at my family’s businesses, my parents’ goal was [for me] to go to school and get a degree so that I wouldn’t work in this industry, because it’s so demanding with long hours and so forth.

I accomplished what they asked of me, but something was missing. I was in finance. I had this unique opportunity where a friend launched a wine importing business and asked me to join him on this journey. I was living at home at the time, in my mid-20s, had not much going on. I decided to kind of bail on finance and hit the streets of Boston, selling wine door-to-door back in the late ‘90s, with very minimal knowledge.

I was in a cubicle 40 hours a week, processing dividends for high-net-worth clients. I was thankful for the opportunity to work in that environment. But I noticed the ceiling was kind of low in terms of how far I could actually go up. Maybe it was in my Greek DNA. I was getting the itch that I wanted to do more. ... I never imagined myself, 30 years ago, doing what I’m doing today.

How did you break into restaurants?
I took a chance with my friend, importing Greek wines into Massachusetts back in 1997. Looking back, Greek wines were barely on the map. There was barely any acknowledgment of Greek wine. … There was either a very pine-resonating wine called Retsina, which was an acquired taste. There was also a sweet one called Mavrodaphne. Those are the only two wines that most folks in the US were familiar with if they ever traveled to Greece in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

It was hard to break that stigma. The EU was starting to fund a lot of programs with different countries, and they saw an opportunity with Greece because it was a huge agricultural landscape that had potential. But, unfortunately, they were great farmers, but not such good producers. They spent years investing in sending a lot of these farmers or their children to Italy or France to study enology so they could bring back that experience to their family operations to make better wine. But that took about two decades. In that time, it was very hard to pierce the market here. Sure enough, slowly but surely, the acceptance started to grow. It was Santorini that really placed Greece on the map as a quality producer.

Then I was recruited to Legal Sea Foods by Sandy Block, who was one of the first masters of wine in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, he passed during COVID. It was really what shaped me into understanding how to learn about wine, but also how to teach about wine and how to actually make people understand it. At Mazi, I was given an offer to come on board as wine director, at the time for just one restaurant, Kava. Since then, we’ve been growing together as a team.

What’s your take on the South End?
There are a lot of foodies, travelers, well-seasoned guests who allow us to be adventurous. There’s a funny story. When we first opened Kava, when I came on board, there was this hesitation to go all Greek when it came to the wine program because of the clientele. No one will know it; we’ll disappoint people. I just kept pushing and pushing to say, ‘You’ve got to trust me on this. I think this is the time to do it. No one else is doing it. Let’s give it a shot.’

So they roll the dice with me, and I put together an all-Greek wine list. And thankfully my list worked out pretty well, because a lot of our guests actually enjoyed it. We never looked back. Kava’s wine program has been strictly Greek since we opened in 2017. It’s that combination of the diners and guests who live in the neighborhood who actually made us more confident in our decision.

Where did you hang out as a kid?
My parents always worked. I was either just hanging out with cousins or friends. We were playing ball in the local parks — baseball, basketball, and street hockey was big for us, as Boston Bruins fans back in the day. In my twenties, in college, I used to hang out in the city, in the South End, at the nightclubs of the ‘90s. Back then, the Seaport was a very shady area, so no one would dare to go down that way.

The North End was a big part of our upbringing. Back then, Pompeii was the biggest hangout for coffee or after the nightclubs. It was a classic hangout spot, open really late. Paradiso was another hangout spot at the time, which I think is still there. And whenever there were soccer games, we’d hang out at Caffe Dello Sport on Hanover Street.

What were your nightclub days in Boston in the ‘90s like? People love to read about that stuff.
I was on the team of Frank DiPasquale, who owns lots of restaurants and nightclubs. Il Panino was one of the biggest, most iconic nightclubs of its time on Franklin Street. Five levels. That was a big thing. Back then there was more of an international crowd when it came to students going out; the dynamics were different. Lansdowne Street was a big staple with Avalon and Modern. And M80 on Comm Ave and Paradise by BU. Those three locations were really where the scenes were happening throughout the week. Back then, there was something going on every night of the week.

How has nightlife changed? You have little kids now, so maybe you don’t know.
I think places like Mariel and Yvonne’s are the new settings for going out. I understand that there are other nightclubs. Big Night has a big offering of nightclubs. But back then we didn’t have that lounge-y vibe like Mariel or Yvonne’s.

What did you eat at your parents’ restaurants? Did you sneak food?
It was a diner. But every Greek diner always pushes their Greek food into the menu. It was always Greek dishes like stuffed peppers, moussaka, pastitsio, or stuffed grape leaves. I’m a big stuffed peppers fan.

Let’s talk about the Boston food scene overall. What do you think is good? And what do you wish were better?
I think that we’ve come a long way. I think that there’s a great variety of restaurants. I mean, we’ve always talked about this internally with friends. You go to New York City, you go to Chicago, you go to D.C. now, and there’s a lot of great creativity. And even though we have great restaurant groups in Boston, I’d just like to see more of it. I think guys like Ken Oringer and his team, they put out great restaurants. Before, the options were not as exciting as they are today.

When you talk about more creativity, what would that look like?
I think that there’s room for Middle Eastern concepts. I love Middle Eastern food. You know, there’s food from the Black Sea area, like Georgia and Armenia, that I believe have great potential, but we don’t see many of those representations. I’d like to see Middle Eastern and Eastern European and North African. Moroccan cuisine is on fire, but we don’t see a lot of it out here. I’d like to see more.

I think it all stems from the individuals: I believe that you have to have some roots from the motherland to be able to actually put out the expressions from that, even though I know there are talented chefs out there who could replicate the cuisine from these countries …. So unless there’s representatives from these cultures who want to come here and put forward Armenian restaurants or Georgian restaurants? I think that’s what it takes.

Where do you hang out when you’re not working now?
I’ve got two little ones. They love pizza. Pizza is a big, big takeout staple at home. We live in Danvers, and Rocco’s is a big staple.

Some fun quick questions: What food can’t you stand? What’s your least favorite food?
Oh, man. Fermented vegetables and fish.

What food do you love?
I love fresh seafood. I love fresh-caught fish that’s grilled. That’s my go-to.

How about a snack?
Salted chips. Lay’s puts out some pretty good ones. I try to stay healthy. I try to find whatever I can at Whole Foods. I don’t know the names — I read the ingredients and look for avocado oil.

Any secrets for getting your kids to try new foods?
I bribe them! If they try something new, I give them a little more iPad time.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Kara Baskin can be reached at