Pierogies and so much more, including great greens
Geneseo’s Polish bistro features down-home cooking with modern touches
116 Main Street, Geneseo
Downtown Geneseo is a mini Ithaca overlooking a gorgeous river valley. A stately four-block procession of pizza parlors, coffee shops, and pubs is bisected by a bear statue that rises above a concrete fountain. There’s an air of civility amid the multicolored brick façades and tin ceilings that date back to the days of horses and carriages. The diverse tastes of employees and students from the nearby state university add a cosmopolitan flair.
Western New Yorkers are no strangers to Polish cooking. You can find pierogies and kielbasa at local groceries and public markets. There are a few Eastern European restaurants tucked into neighborhoods around Rochester—and lots more in Buffalo. EuroCafé is a good place to order a Polish Platter ($15) and satisfy your cravings for gołbki (stuffed cabbage), pierogies, and Poland’s national dish, hunter’s stew, a hearty blend of sausages, mushrooms, and kraut that dates back to the fourteenth century.
To fully appreciate the restaurant, however, you need to focus on how it reflects a more modern, independent Poland unshackled from its generations of cyclical occupation by neighboring oligarchs and communist regimes. EuroCafé is a product of globalization as much as tradition. There’s a notable lack of kitsch in the narrow dining area. This is not an ethnic restaurant tailored to American expectations. Six small round tables are elegantly draped with white tablecloths. A flower arrangement matches with the bright salmon-red walls that sparkle with strings of electric lights. There are pictures of Warsaw, Poland, but also of Paris and other European capitals.
Co-owner Margaret Zdzieszynski returns home to the Polish capital twice a year and keeps current on the latest food trends there and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Among those are a shift away from lard and high-sodium additives toward a more healthful approach that suits fitness and diverse dietary needs. The hunter’s stew is listed as gluten-free. The stuffed cabbage can be served meatless with buckwheat and mushrooms instead of ground beef.
“Sometimes people think Polish food is full of fat and heaviness,” explains Zdzieszynski. “We try to keep the original recipe, but we try to balance the ingredients so it’s not as heavy. We cook everything from scratch—no boxed or preserved food. We don’t use preservatives, except for a bit of salt for taste.”
The menu lists a dozen kinds of pierogies and as many kinds of soup. The pierogies are wonderful, made every two weeks by Zdzieszynski on a machine at Polska Chata in Irondequoit—but you need to try one of the soups. These are made fresh daily and rotate on and off the menu a few at a time. One of today’s soups is sorrel ($7), a spring green that imparts a citrusy punch to a broth of potatoes and carrots. The spice combination is complex and closely guarded by Zdzieszynski. Sunflower seeds add unexpected texture.
This holds true for today’s entrée, the slaskie ($12), a colorful arrangement of plump potato dumplings with a feather-light texture similar to the best gnocchi. The dumplings are topped with your choice of pork loin or mushroom gravy, and three colorful salads that include a leafy salad with tomatoes, radishes, oranges, and snap peas; a sour slaw of cabbage and carrots; and a palate-cleansing mixture of apples, cranberries, and pineapples. The colorful presentation is as refined as a Niçoise composed salad—which Zdzieszynski says is no coincidence. The cuisine of her home region of Silesia bears much in common with that of France and Austria.
At dessert, the handiwork of Zdzieszynski’s partner Krystyna Skrzypek gets to shine. She is the restaurant’s baker, and her display case is a tour de force of tortes. The ladyfingers in the tiramisu ($6) have somehow resisted going soggy after being doused with coffee and rum. To wash it down, there’s excellent coffee served in delicate china cups and saucers.
Every other weekend, Zdzieszynski and Skrzypek branch out into other Eastern European recipes—potato pancakes from Budapest and schnitzel from Vienna, though made from pork or chicken rather than veal.
EuroCafé is an unfamiliar concept that might not have worked out in many other small American towns. However, it’s been going strong for two years in Geneseo where hungry academics are grateful for a chance to expand their horizons without having to trek up to the city. A rotating menu of fresh, creative dishes invites repeat visits, and the hospitality of these two first-generation women makes its customers feel at home.
Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.