Hungarian home cooking with a twist

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Since The Paprika Cafe opened its door more than one year ago, owner Ernie Szabo says he still does it for the good, Hungarian home-cooking.

The cafe, located on Mahoning Avenue, officially opened near the end of August, 2006. The cafe celebrated its one-year anniversary in September with a pig roast. Szabo said it’s a European custom to celebrate events, such as harvest time, with pig roasts, so he wanted to keep the celebration traditional.

The cafe tries to cater to Hungarian tastes since Szabo and his brother, Chuck Szabo, are full-blooded Hungarian, but they have branched out to include various types of pierogies from different cultures. He said each nationality has its own version of pierogies and Hungarians do it as dessert.

The cafe currently offers 25 varieties of pierogies that were designed mostly by customers. Szabo said they hope to continue to build their selection, but current choices include spinach and feta, potato and jalepeno, and the eye-catching peanut butter and jelly.

“It’s mainly offered for the kids,” Szabo said. “But I’ve had four adults purchase them.”

The third-generation Hungarian said he followed in his mother’s footsteps and has always been involved with food. She started a Hungarian mail order service in the late ‘80s and people from all over America order Hungarian things like mugs, key chains and shirts. After his mother started that service, people occasionally asked for food, he said.

And so he answered with The Cafe.

Szabo, a math teacher at Girard High School, assigned his business math class a business plan. While they were doing their business plans, Szabo said he made one of his own.

“From there, I was done and thought it would be kind of neat,” Szabo said. “I was bored one day and thought, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

Szabo said his most popular dish is Chicken Paprikas, which is boneless, skinless chicken breast mixed with sour cream, paprika and a chicken-based sauce poured over homemade dumplings. Chicken Paprikas is popular because it’s tasty and cheap, Szabo said.

“It’s more for the Americans to eat,” Szabo said. “It’s popular, but not traditional.”

While the menu has been Americanized, aspects of Paprika’s atmosphere has not. On Wednesdays and Saturdays during dinner hours, patrons will be serenaded by a violinist playing Hungarian tunes from the old country.

The Paprika Cafe may be the only place in the Valley where you can regularly see such a performance. Szabo said his restaurant has been doing well the past year and he thinks that can be attributed to the lack of competition in the area. He said someone told him that there used to be a Hungarian restaurant near the steel mills in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but as far as he knows, the closest Hungarian restaurant is in Cleveland.

It also may have to do with people today cooking fewer meals at home than in previous generations, he said.

“It’s kind of what your mom or grandmother made,” he said. “Here, you’re getting true Hungarian food.”

The Cafe’s head chef, Frank Faria, has worked in many restaurants before settling down at the Cafe. Originally from Portugal, he said he enjoys cooking and is confident he can master any menu.

“You give me an empty building, you give me a menu, you give me a check and you can go on vacation,” Faria said.

Speaking of vacation, Szabo said what he likes most about his restaurant is seeing out-of-towners stopping by with local family members. He said he loves seeing families come together over good, homemade food.

“It’s just good home cooking,” Szabo said. “Good Hungarian cooking.”