Marianna Leividitaki, head chef of Morito on Hackney Road, grew up plucking fish from the turquoise waters of Northwest Crete. Her father was a fisherman, and the family ran a seafood restaurant known for having the freshest catches in town. “It was right at the furthest end of the harbour.” Marianna tells us, after emerging from the kitchen in her chef whites. “You had to know where you were going. We hardly ever saw a tourist, unless someone had held their hand and led them there.” She began helping out at the restaurant when she was young (“Too young, probably!”), learning to gut the catches, stoke the charcoal grill and handle thorny sea urchins. “I was this horrifically skinny kid just running around from morning to night, so full of energy!” She recalls. “I worked a lot, but it never felt like a chore. I would ask my dad for new shoes and he would say “Ok, so you’ve got to tie 1500 hooks.” There was always an exchange. My parents saw me learn where money came from, and that built up a trust. We were very free because of that.”
Marianna’s practical knowledge of prepping and cooking food came from those early years, while her understanding of flavour was gleaned from local ‘grannies’, whose kitchens she would scramble into to observe the writing of recipes or the perfect seasoning of a soup.
Marianna first came to England from Crete to study forensic psychology in Kent. She spent her money on train journeys to London, where she would eat at Moro, the North African and Spanish-influenced restaurant on Exmouth Market that has been a gastronomic landmark since 1997. Ditching psychology, she travelled Europe for a while before ending up at the end of the harbour in Halepa once more, manning her parent’s restaurant.
“People would come to the restaurant and say “What have you got?” and we’d show them the box of freshly caught fish.” Marianna explains. “We’d weigh it, take it to the kitchen, gut it and then throw it on the charcoal. The food was always mezze style, just clean and simple. That’s the way I’ve always loved to eat.”
Returning to London, Marianna walked straight into Moro and asked for a job. She began as a waitress, slowly working her way up to the kitchen and developing a watertight bond with Samuel and Samantha Clark, the restaurant’s chef proprietors. “I stepped into Moro after having never worked in a professional restaurant. It was nothing like my parent’s place. People had sharp knives and would chop without looking down!” She remembers. “I never even knew that existed. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to show everyone I could do it. So I worked really hard, I did research, and I took on the challenge.”
A few months ago, Morito opened in Hackney – the third branch of Moro. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over a bustling road peppered with natural wine bars and wood whittlers, council blocks and wholesale bag shops. “I love the mixture of people that come in here.” Marianna says. “You get the hipsters, you get locals, you get older people, business people…you get such a variety.” Morito’s dining room stretches around a marble-topped bar in the centre, with columns covered in silver tiles glinting like fish scales. The walls are coloured by a panel of blue which, after a few minutes with Marianna, start to recall the calm waters of Crete. “Coming in to Moro in the beginning was a challenge. But this restaurant has been a completely different challenge.” She remarks. “We stepped in here and it was just four walls. Every last detail had to be talked about.”
In here, Moro’s signature North Africa and the Mediterranean small plates are shot with the bright flavours of Crete – sunny dishes that marry the sea with the region’s wild foods. “I think this marriage of flavours is fantastic,” Marianna says, “because food in Greece and Crete has very much been influence by the Turkish culture. It feels very natural.”
For lunch, we eat a whole market fish jewelled with pomegranate seeds; a Cretan pie of lamb and spinach; soft, and piping hot cheese fritters with Cretan thyme honey. We wash it all down with a coral-coloured wine, while Marianna explains her upcoming trip to Crete, which she returns to frequently to collect recipes and explore the landscape. “I appreciate Crete now more than ever.” She explains. “Lots of different factors contributed to my interest in food growing up. Now when I go back, I know exactly where I want to go and who I want to speak to. I think that the more tools you have to create, the more things become inspirational. You find it everywhere. You can see colours in a wall and create a dish from them.”
“Eating in Crete is all to do with the mood and the season.” Marianna explains. She speaks of driving up into the mountains, where you are slowed by mobs of wild sheep. Up there, you might order red wine with lamb and sausages, while down by the water you would drink cold beer or Ouzo with platters of charcoal-grilled octopus and prawns. Most of this feasting takes place in local tavernas – what a good British pub might be if it was stripped of ale-soaked carpets and thrust onto the edge of the Mediterranean. These homely, raucous eating and drinking holes epitomise the culinary culture of Crete. They are loud, informal places where friends and neighbours come together to clink glasses and pick fresh fish from the bones. “Formal places have started to open in Crete, but they’re never as popular. The tavernas feel like you’re visiting someone’s home.” I think back to an evening spent at Morito a few weeks before. The candles flickered on tables full of guests eating and talking, the door swinging open and closed, the open kitchen steaming and jangled at the back of the room. I’ve never been to Cretan taverna, but I can imagine it’s a little like this. Marianna laughs in agreement. “It sometimes feels like a taverna in here. You have to raise the tone of your voice to be heard sometimes!” She says. “For me, the most important thing about a restaurant is approachability. Whether that comes from the décor, the prices or the atmosphere, everyone has to feel that they’re welcome. You get than in Crete, and I hope that people feel it here too.”