In the early years of its operation, Costa’s entered the Lorna Road dining scene as a family-oriented barbecue joint, with descriptions of menu specials – like the one-pound potato topped with barbecue chicken – splashed on signage hanging from the ceiling tiles. The storied barbecue destination was the American Dream realized for owners Maria Kanellis and her late husband, Gus “Costa” Kanellis – and what a dream it was. In 1985, The Birmingham News crowned Costa’s Famous Bar-B-Que its number one top pick of all local barbecue eateries.
After years of successfully operating their family of Costa’s Famous Bar-B-Que locations, the Kanellis decided to pursue their culinary dream of introducing the dishes of their Mediterranean heritage to the gastronomic tastes of the Deep South. Maria led a complete overhaul of the restaurant’s menu and its concept by infusing Mediterranean, Greek and Italian influences, and in the mid-1990s, Costa’s Mediterranean Café opened its doors.
And for nearly two decades, Maria Kanellis’ cooking has had patrons coming back for more.
“My customers appreciate the fact that I serve homemade quality food, with fresh ingredients they can taste,” she said. “You just don’t find that anymore. Here, you’ll enjoy our homemade dressing – nothing that comes out of gallon jug. You just don’t find that anymore. But it’s my belief that if I cannot give you something fresh and good and plentiful, then I don’t need to be in business.”
Over the years, little has changed about Costa’s, which is part of its charm. It is pleasant without being pretentious. The dining room’s interior, accented by stained glass lamp shades and windows, is comfortable and welcoming, with spacious booths and tables throughout. A thoughtfully designed bar anchors the restaurant’s center, making it easily accessible while also preserving the privacy of the dining room.
The extensive menu, which includes recipes that appeal to children’s palates as well as the tastes of more sophisticated diners, features classic comfort foods – Lasagna, Fettuccine Alfredo, Chicken Parmesan – as well as traditional Greek favorites, including Moussaka, Chicken, Pork and Beef Souvlaki, and Spanakopita.
The pasta dishes, sautéed in browned butter and fresh Romano cheese, are particularly flavorful.
Costa’s tzaziki sauce and house dressing are homemade, and are well worth the calorie splurge. In response to diner demand, the restaurant now sells its house dressing– a delicious blend of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and Greek seasoning (16 ounce bottles are $3.95).
“Our recipes have been perfected by a combination of the knowledge I had as a Greek girl coming here at 16 years old, with memories of the way Greek women like my mother and grandmothers cooked, along with my husband’s knowledge,” Kannellis said. “Gus came from a family of restaurateurs, and he was willing to experiment until he got it just right.”
Therein lies the magic of how this local treasure has become such an institution among its clientele. Homemade goodness, passionately prepared and generously sized so that a dinner out can easily turn into next-day leftovers that you’ll actually want to eat.
“I don’t want you to leave the restaurant hungry,” Kannellis said. And rest assured, you won’t.
Most dishes on the menu are moderately priced, particularly given the extremely generous portion sizes.
In addition to its dining room experience, Costa’s manages a thriving take-out business through its popular Family Specials to-go menu. With meal options from $16.95 and up, restaurant patrons can take the goodness of Costa’s Mediterranean Café home with convenience. All specials include salad and garlic bread. Pork and chicken kabob dinners, as well as Eggplant and Veal Parmigiana dinners, also include rice pilaf or pasta.
The restaurant welcomes private parties and special events. For parties of 10 or more, the honoree eats free.