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An Inside Look at the Pierogi Makers Of Pittsburgh

By Katie Kelly

Lynne Szarnicki has been in the pierogi making business for over ten years and has a distaste for Mrs. T’s Pierogis, what she calls a fake pierogi.

Elisha Veon got the idea to start a food truck after multiple discussions with her mother on what she was going to do when she was gone.

Helen Mannarino is no stranger to making pierogi, she’s been making them for a little over 50 years now and has had her pierogis featured on Food Network.

Pierogis have warmed their way into the hearts and stomachs of locals and managed to become a popular dish in this region. The popularity has warranted a Pierogi Festival and a Pierogi Race during every Pirates game. One of the reasons this dish is so popular amongst Pittsburghers is because we’re big on tradition.

There’s a heavy population of Eastern European descendants in the area that want to keep their grandmother or great grandmother’s pierogi making tradition alive. And nothing tastes better than a homemade pierogi.

And those of us who don’t want to go through the long process of making the pierogis, will gladly buy them.

Pittsburgh isn’t responsible for the creation of the pierogi, but takes a lot of credit for it. Neighborhoods in Munhall, Homestead, Duquesne and Polish hill all lay claim to the pierogi.

Veon explained, “I’ve noticed people are so purely Pittsburgh or just nostalgic. Pierogies are so special, people are taking notice to the churches are shutting down and the grandmas aren’t alive or well enough.”

The pierogi, a round dough-filled dumping, originated in Eastern Europe. The recognizable Polish dish migrated to North America over 100 years ago with immigrants from countries like Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia.

These countries aren’t the only ones that are well versed in pierogi making, but they’re the most notable ones.

A pierogi is usually made with a thinly rolled dough and the traditional fillings of sauerkraut or potatoes. But with new generations, come new and interesting ways of filling the pierogi.

There are several places to stop in and enjoy a homemade pierogi around the city, but you can also catch a food truck on the go.

SAUSAGE

Szarnicki, owner of the Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck, has been making pierogi since she was 15. She would help her grandparents out in the kitchen when they were making pierogis for their church.

The truck opened five years ago, but the team started as Polish Pierogi online and sold from a tent for a few years before deciding to open up the truck. Selling the traditional pierogi like potato and cheese along with haluski and stuffed cabbage, also called golabki, lets the truck appeal to a wide-range of customers.

The Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck at Kennywood. Courtesy of PGH Pierogi Facebook

Pierogis range in price starting at $3.50 for three and ending at $12 for 12, stuffed cabbage is $3.50 each, and haluski is $5 for a small and $9 for a large.

“We hear the same story from everyone, ‘there was this woman who lived next door to me and she made the best pierogi,’” Szarnicki explained.

The truck runs all year round driving across the city to park its pierogis street side and beyond. But the busiest time of the year for Szarnicki and her team of three full-time employees is Christmas and Easter, two popular holidays in the Polish community.

Szarnicki explained, “If you’re Polish, you have to have pierogi on Christmas Eve.”

The trucks specialty, the traditional pierogi, is made with soft dough, made at a reasonable size and filled with cheese and potato. There are no gimmicks when it comes to homemade pierogi, just soft, pillowy dough and a good filling.

Szarnicki lays claim to the consistency and authenticity of the Pierogi Truck’s pierogi, with the right dough and delicious filling.

CHEESE AND POTATO

Babcia’s Lunchbox is another food truck that’s well known in Pittsburgh but doesn’t reside here.

Elisha Veon explained, “I live in Ohio, but I’ve lived in McKeesport my whole life. When my mom and step-father were diagnosed with cancer, I would drive back and forth every weekend.”

Veon’s great-grandmother emigrated from Poland after World War II and wanted to keep her family recipes alive, teaching Veon at the ripe age of three how to roll, fill and pinch pierogi.

Every year, the family would make baskets for their church, St. Mary’s of Mercy Corpus Christi, and when there was time to make pierogi for dinner, they would take the opportunity.

Veon’s great-grandmother passed away last March, and that’s when she quit her job as a cook. Soon after, her mother and step-father were diagnosed with cancer, and she found herself driving back and forth to Mckeesport every weekend.

Her mother would always ask, “What are you gonna do when I’m gone?”

Veon’s food truck parked and ready for business in Ohio. Courtesy of Babcia’s Lunchbox Facebook

An idea they had about cooking for people when they were homebound, turned into opening a Polish restaurant. And from that, the idea of a food truck was born.

Before the food truck was ready, they opened a pierogi pop-up this past September. Veon and her grandmother worked three to four days a week, often with the help of her mother and aunts. Now, the truck serves pierogi, bigosh and haluski.

The potato and cheese pierogis are priced at three for $5and six for $9. Specials are varied in price and Haluski is $5 and $7 with toppings.

Their pierogis are made with a vegan dough, just water, salt and flour. The fillings vary from different cheeses, buffalo chicken, and meat filled. Veon prides herself in using 80 percent of locally sourced ingredients.

SAUERKRAUT

If you’re looking for a pierogi that’s made with tender love and care, Pierogies Plus is where to stop in. Converted from an old gas station into the small store front, the charming store has been open since 1991.

Mannarino dishing out some pierogis in the kitchen of Pierogies Plus. Photo by Katie Kelly.

Mannarino, the owner of Pierogies Plus started making pierogies when she was seven years old. Pinching and cutting onions was a part of her chores. But as she got older, she was doing these things by herself, for fun.

Her family owned a diner when she was in her late-teens and she found herself helping to make pierogis there. Suddenly she felt like a professional doing all of the work herself by hand.

Pierogis Plus started 27 years ago with just Mannarino and a friend, at the time open only two days a week. A slow start to what would become a fast-paced and well-known place.

The team that works there now is made up of 27 people, most who come from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Pierogies Plus does its best to serve and deliver to the local area and also ship their pierogis around the country. Prices for specialty pierogis vary by order and ordering online. In store a half-dozen plain potato pierogis  served hot are $5.45, a dozen are $10.90. For a serving of a half-dozen cold potato pierogis it will cost you $4.50, and for a dozen it’s $8.95. The onion sauce is sold separately in a six ounce container for $1.95.

The pierogis are made fresh daily, the potatoes are peeled daily and there’s no preservatives or additives. With different varieties of fillings, including some that Mannarino herself has never heard of or made, like a stuffing, turkey and corn-filled pierogi there is surely something for everyone’s taste.

COTTAGE CHEESE

Derewecki dishing out food in her truck. Courtesy of Grandma Cyl’s Homemade Pierogi Facebook.

Where most of these stories seem to start, owner and operator of Grandma Cyl’s Homemade Pierogi, Renee Derewecki, found herself filling and pinching dough at six years old, following the instructions of her grandmother.

Derewecki was six when she found herself helping her grandmother out. Not knowing what recipe she was using or what she was really doing, she began her pierogi making career.

“I guess you can call me her grunt. I actually received a marble rolling pin for Christmas one year which my brother and sister still laugh about.” She said.

After her grandmother’s passing in 1999, and no recipe to be found, she began her endeavor to find the perfect dough. Her parents had both passed of heart conditions just before her grandmother, and she felt the need to carry on the homemade pierogi tradition.

“I had no recipe, so it was trial and error and believe me, it was a lot of error,” she explained.

Fifteen years later, she found the perfect dough recipe and on August 23, 2014, Grandma Cyl’s Homemade Pierogi was officially born, a food truck in which she makes, rolls and runs herself. Sometimes her fiancé will step in, but it’s almost all her.

Working 70 plus hours a week, Derewecki has approximately 50 different varieties of pierogi under her belt, ranging from appetizers to desserts which she makes during the week, freezes and then takes to the various events she attends on the weekend.

A constant work stream is always happening when she’s cooking, but she loves seeing the reaction she gets out of the customers.

She said, “I must say how great it feels to get a compliment from a little old Polish lady who knows how an authentic pierogi should taste and say they are better than their mother’s.”

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

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