How local eateries are taking the classic 'Burgh delicacy to a new level.
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Photography by Laura Petrilla
On a crisp fall morning, about 15 women, most of them in their 80s, are in the basement of the 107-year-old St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church continuing a decades-long tradition: making pyrohi. For these ladies, pyrohi “season” runs from October to Memorial Day, during which they gather on the first Friday of every month to make the dumplings. The work that goes into their handmade creations pays off, as some devotees swear the women, who work alongside a half-dozen guys, make the best pierogies in Pittsburgh.
The mood is almost meditative as the group begins the process of churning out a batch of 1,800 dumplings by hand. The recipe they use is one of the most closely guarded secrets of the sisterhood at the McKees Rocks church. “They won’t even give it to me!” jokes the Rev. Tim Tomson, pastor of St. Mary parish for the last 12 years. Agnes Kovarovich — at age 89, she’s the most senior member of the group — is the current keeper of this secret.
McKees Rocks is home to countless immigrants of Eastern-European descent — folks whose families came here in the 1900s to work in the then-booming steel, iron and coal industries.
Ukrainians, Slovaks and others from Eastern Europe also settled in neighborhoods including Munhall, Homestead, Duquesne and Polish Hill. They all claimed the pierogi as their own, says Mary Miller, adjunct professor in Chatham University’s Food Studies program. Many churches use a pierogi recipe that was handed down from the first generation of migrants.
The same can be said for local vendors, such as Lynne Szarnicki, owner of the popular PGH Pierogi Truck. Szarnicki, who says she “grew up in a church basement, wearing a babushka and making [pierogies],” uses a Polish-style recipe for her creations, which come in conventional flavors ranging from cabbage to potato-onion. The pierogies served on her truck are the same as those sold at her original business, Polish Pierogi, which distributes to area retailers and ships the freshly made products nationwide.
Carl Funtal thinks outside the dumpling with Asian-inspired and dessert pierogies at Cop Out.
Pyrohi, pierogi — does it matter? And does it matter what’s inside? While plenty of purists prefer to stick with traditional recipes, an increasing number of local purveyors and restaurateurs are experimenting with and serving different flavor pairings — tweaking the beloved classic by adding new options such as cherry cheesecake and stewed cabbage with apple. To paraphrase Shakespeare, a filled pillow of dough by any other name is just as heavenly.
Concurring with that notion is Alexis Macklin, director of the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center.
“It is interesting that all Eastern-European cultures have this food,” says Macklin, whose great-grandfather came to Pittsburgh from Warsaw. “People like my great-grandfather, they all moved away from their home to find a better life here. They came from all over, but it’s the one thing that they all had in common — one thing that they could all celebrate about who they were. Everybody accepted this food. Everybody enjoyed the pierogi; it’s a custom that we could share and be proud of as a community.”
Helen Mannarino lives by this sense of community. She emigrated from Poland in 1974 and founded Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks more than 20 years ago. At her place, housed in a converted gas station, Mannarino employs Polish, Russian and Ukrainian cooks, many of whom have been dedicated to the craft for 30 years. In 2011, Pierogies Plus was listed in the chefs’ edition of Saveur’s annual “100” list, and it consistently tops local “best pierogi” polls.
“We are lucky that customers keep coming,” says Mannarino, who notes “their tastes are changing.” When she opened, she offered only four classics — potato-cheese, sauerkraut-potato, cottage cheese and meat — but now, she prepares and sells more than 38 options. Thanks to customer requests, Mannarino added such hits as the potato-jalapeño pierogi and the breakfast pierogi, filled with eggs, cheddar cheese, Italian sausage and green onions.
These changing flavors are a small culinary barometer for the changing face of Pittsburgh.
For their monthly event, Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski churn out more than 1,000 pierogies, including the ever-famous Warsaw Gutter (recipe below), to the sounds of Depeche Mode.
The 2010 census showed that, for the first time in decades, the region’s population is growing, and its median age is getting younger. Food traditions transform with changes in a region’s population. If the pierogi is the legacy of a major wave of migration from the early 1900s, new residents will inevitably introduce and spur variations on the staple to reflect the region’s transformation.
Consider Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, the couple behind the city’s cult hit Pierogi Night. Once a month, Lasky and Skowronski work feverishly to make more than 1,300 pierogies, with Depeche Mode blaring in the background, and serve a growing throng of followers. You know their pierogies must be good — some Pierogi Night fans make the pilgrimage from New Jersey and West Virginia.
It all started three years ago when Skowronski, son of Polish immigrants, was tending bar at Blue Moon in Lawrenceville and decided that he wanted to make pierogies like the ones he enjoyed as a kid. One night, he cooked a batch of sauerkraut-mushroom and served it to about 30 customers. Little did he know that would be the start of a much-awaited monthly event.
Pierogi Night moved quickly from the bar to other venues before settling at the Stephen Foster Community Center in Lawrenceville. From the beginning, Lasky and Skowronski, both in their mid-20s, relied mostly on Facebook and word-of-mouth promotion, giving their pop-up nights the mystique of an “underground” event.
They select new flavors each month after surveying what’s available at the market and brainstorming on the spot. Their pierogies are usually seasonally inspired, but they “always try to mix it up just to entertain [themselves],” says Lasky. As for rules on what they can whip up, they steer clear of ingredients such as basil, which they believe crosses the line into ravioli territory. In addition, they make sure the filling is interesting enough to stand up to the dough, which sometimes contains poppy seeds, in part to help differentiate between choices.
Crowd-favorite pierogies include roasted parsnip with turnip greens and the well-known Warsaw Gutter, a vinegar- and herb-blanched cabbage with tomatoes and onions (essentially stuffed cabbage enveloped in pierogi dough). At press time, the couple is looking to buy an East End building that will house their eatery, Apteka; Lasky says it will likely open sometime this winter.
From start to finish, the pierogies made in Legume and Butterjoint's shared kitchen are prepared with care. They contain white potatoes and farmer's cheese, and are served with fried onions and sour cream.
Viva La Pierogi
The evolution of the pierogi can be seen on the menus at some of Pittsburgh’s finest restaurants. This past spring, Kaya in the Strip District served a pierogi filled with always sought-after ramps during one of its vegetarian tasting events. Church Brew Works offers tried-and-true pierogi options in addition to an ever-changing lineup of unusual alternatives. Between the rattlesnake-cactus and alligator-plantain fillings, adventurous diners should find something to their liking at this beer hot spot.
In Oakland, Legume’s new lunch menu and the permanent lineup at its sister establishment Butterjoint list a subtle rework of the classic potato-and-cheese variety. The pierogi here bears chef/co-owner Trevett Hooper’s mark, as each ingredient is sourced or made with care; his creations are “rooted in tradition” and feature housemade farmer’s cheese.
Butterjoint's pierogies with sautéed greens and sausage.
On Pierogi Night, Lasky and Skowronski have a similar philosophy. They may serve bold options, but they continue to revere classic flavors — including sauerkraut-mushroom, made from Skowronski's family recipe.
“Old World” and “New World” tastes merge in the kitchen at Szmidt’s Old World Deli. Along with housemade deli offerings, owner Darren Smith makes such pierogies as gyro with tzatziki sauce and Southwest chicken with cilantro-lime sour cream. You can even get those filled dumplings in the form of a “rage” — sandwich buns topped with four pierogies, sauce and cheese.
The duo behind Peddlin’ Pierogies, which initially hoped to vend its products via bikes, found success when it debuted spelt-dough pierogies last year at a South Side dive bar. Its choices included curry-sweet potato. At press time, the crew was in the process of relocating.
Carl Funtal served only standard pierogies when he opened Cop Out Pierogies in Etna last year, but he has since expanded the menu, which now boasts 30-plus options. There’s even a spring-roll pierogi; when deep-fried, its dough bubbles up to resemble the Asian staple’s crunchy shell.
Funtal moved to the North Hills 20 years ago and dreamed of sharing the pierogies he enjoyed growing up. He also will make any pierogi a customer requests, such as one filled with watermelon-tequila sauce and barbecue chicken.
Inside his shop, the Cop Out crew also produces whopping one-pound pierogies in addition to sweet “pie-rogies.” There are 20 dessert pierogies, including apple-maple-walnut cheesecake and the seasonal pumpkin spice. Funtal has even introduced a gluten-free pierogi; its dough is made with Bob’s Red Mill all-purpose, gluten-free flour.
Funtal is not the only one who has found the pierogi’s sweet spot. Chocolatier Christopher George Weck sells a chocolate-covered pierogi at Sinful Sweets, the downtown chocolate haven he runs. While some may view pierogies filled with lekvar, a prune butter, as dessert, Weck has redefined the classification; he dips his homemade potato-and-cheese pierogies in either dark or milk chocolate. Chocolate goes even further at Szmidt’s, where Smith’s dessert pierogi menu lists a peanut butter-cup filling encased in chocolate dough.
With modern takes on classic varieties, seasonal spins and inventive flavors that pay homage to different ethnic tastes, the pierogi is evolving with the times while in some aspects keeping true to its roots. Funtal may be on to something with his spring-roll and taco pierogies at Cop Out: Recent census statistics show that Pittsburgh is seeing an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. As with previous waves of immigrants, they are changing the city.
What does this mean for the pierogi? Maybe we’ll soon see the inevitable fusion with other cultures and their unique dumplings. Could the sushirogi be far behind?