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You can learn a lot about Greece from the place mats at Desfina. Crowded onto each sheet of crinkly paper are a drawing of the Parthenon, a map of Greece, and a history lesson. "Western Civilization and Democracy were developed by the Ancient Greeks," it says. "Aristotle argued that the earth is round 1800 years before Columbus. Hippocrates was the father of Modern Medicine."

You can learn a lot about Greek food from this book I found in the library: The Foods of Greece,  by an Athenian journalist.    It's a wonderful coffee-table
affair that paints a glowing picture of a cuisine of mint andfeta and parsley, of roast lamb and eggs and seafood, of fresh cheese and hand-cracked green olives.

You can forget all that stuff, though, when you sit down to dinner at Desfina, a cozy little taverna offering authentic Greek cuisine, tucked behind the Cambridge courthouse. There are only two things you need to know here: one, Greek restaurant food bears only a slight resemblance to country cuisine. And two, at Desfina a man will come to your table and light a piece of cheese on fire.

It's true. Just when you think you've seen every novelty food in the book -- when you've had your fourth purple potato salad, your second ostrich fillet, your third fish-on-a-plank -- well, just then, along comes the waiter at a tiny Greek joint with a cigarette lighter and a slab of fried sheep's-milk cheese doused in 151-proof liquor, and whoof! You're a kid again. The blue fire dances around the plate. The edges of the cheese sear into a guilty pleasure, like the crusty bottom of a fondue pot.

The old guys at the bar clap. Desfina isn't exactly going to revolutionize Greek cooking as it's understood in the United States of America, but boy, did it score with that cheese!

As always, there are exceptions. The flaming cheese ($11.99) is extinguished with several squeezes of a cut lemon; the juice adds to the natural zip of the sheep's-milk cheese, and the resulting puddle of lemon and oil makes great bread-mopping. Also profoundly unbland was the skordalia ($8.99), a very smooth dip that tasted so powerfully of raw garlic that the people at our table made a deal: everyone eats it, or no one does.

But beyond that, the Mediterranean liveliness Greek food can achieve -- the interplay of lemon and brine, seafood and olive oil and greens, the land and the hills -- was evident only in snatches. It showed through in a chicken kebab ($12.50), in which moist grilled chunks of chicken were served alongside a bed of rice flavored with tomato paste and, fleetingly, cinnamon. It peeked out of the octopus appetizer ($18.99), a toss of chopped tentacles and parsley and oil.

There's a wine and beer menu, and for $6.00 you can get a glass of Kourtaki retsina, the bizarre result of a historical Greek predilection for mixing pine bark into white wine as a preservative. The version here is fairly mild compared to the stuff you can buy in Greece: it's an off-dry white with a lingering hint of turpentine.

As a neighborhood restaurant, Desfina is easy to like. Among other things, the price/coziness ratio is unmatched; you walk through the front room, with tables and a small warm bar, to sit in a snug booth in back. If you stand outside the windows at night, you can see the neon exterior of the CambridgeSide Galleria several blocks down, but you still feel miles removed from the scoured vastness of a mall. You feel like you're somewhere else. Not Greece, maybe, but somewhere.

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