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Dining with Woodene Merriman

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Old Europe serves the ethnic dishes that Pittsburghers grew up on

Friday, January 21, 2000

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Old Europe gets two kinds of customers: Those who are anxious to try something new in this city of Italian, Italian and Italian restaurants, and those who long for the Eastern European dishes their "baba" used to make.

Both should be happy. Old Europe's menu has no fried zucchini, no wedding soup, no spaghetti and meatballs and no tiramisu. But anybody's baba would be proud to serve up the chicken paprikas, het vezer tokany, banitza and other dishes that I can't pronounce, but love to eat.

Don't you agree, H.H? Not entirely, apparently. He's busy spooning the chopped cucumbers, red and green peppers from his sopska salata onto my salad dish so the waiter won't know he didn't eat it all. (Doesn't want to hurt the waiter's feelings, you know.) His Honor rarely eats cucumbers and red and green peppers. They don't go well with wine, I assume.

Personally, I like the salad. The chopped vegetables are served in a light, refreshing dressing and there's not a piece of iceberg

lettuce in sight. I'll eat your leftovers, H.H.

The menu at Old Europe has dishes from Bulgaria, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Croatia, Ukraine and Serbia. With a healthy appetite you could eat your way around Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. We're working on it.

Dinners, which range from $13.95 to $16.95, start with complimentary little squares of banitza, or phyllo dough pastry with a feta cheese filling. Very good. Banitza, sopska salata and a vegetable side dish with a name I can't spell or pronounce are served with every dinner. The green beans and sliced carrots in the vegetable dish have been stewed until they are soft, just the thing if you're weary of today's crisp vegetables. Forgettable bread, baked from a frozen dough, and served warm, arrives in a pretty ethnic napkin.

So where are the pierogies? They're here, but under a different name. Old Europe serves a Ukraine version called vareniki as an appetizer. The menu describes them as homemade potato- and sauerkraut-filled dumplings, but they look and taste like fat, soft, mashed-potato-filled pierogies, sauteed in butter and served with caramelized onions. Only one minor problem: We didn't get any sauerkraut vareniki, just potato.

Borscht is a nice first course, too. It's the traditional vegetable soup made with beets, served hot with a dollop of sour cream in the center. Also from Ukraine, it's surprisingly sweet. Lozovi sarmi, or stuffed grape leaves from Bulgaria, are loosely packed with ground veal, pork and rice, not a bit vinegary, and arrive in a yogurt sauce. Appetizers are $3.95 to $7.50.

One of the appetizers - shrimp Dalmatia - has become so popular that it is also offered as a dinner. Jumbo shrimp are arranged, standing on end, around a mound of rice covered with an excellent paprika cognac sauce. Baba never made anything like this.

Chicken paprikas (Hungarian) has a pretty, spicy red paprika cream sauce. Het vezer tokany, or seven chieftain stew, is a hearty combination of well-cooked beef, veal, pork and bacon, also from Hungary.

Just inside the entrance to Old Europe is a fish tank stocked with rainbow, brown, brook and palomino trout. Choose your fish, the waiter dips it out of the tank, and it's wrapped in grape leaves and grilled, the Greek way. H.H. did that, and now is carefully poking his fork into a rainbow trout that was swimming in a hatchery in Somerset County two days ago. "Very good," he says, "but I didn't realize it wouldn't be boned before it was served." Picky, picky.

Old Europe is the creation of Nicholas Jordanoff Jr., who is both owner and cook. He arrives at the South Side restaurant each day at 9 a.m., cooks all day, and at 5 p.m. changes into his hand-embroidered Bulgarian shirt and starts to greet customers. Jordanoff and his wife, Desi, brought the cover plates, embroidered napkins for the bread baskets, paintings and other ethnic pieces back from trips to Bulgaria. The Jordanoff name may be familiar - his dad was with the Duquesne Tamburitzans for 20 years, and with the Pittsburgh Folk Festival even longer.

The restaurant has an awkward design, with the main dining room, two long rows of booths, on one side of a center wall, and booths, the lounge and a small private dining room on the other side of the wall. The rest rooms are in the back of the dining room side. One night a big party completely filled the two rows of booths in the dining room. To get to the ladies room, I had to walk down through the center of the party, passing right in front of a man making a speech. I got stares, but no applause.

Ethnic music would be a nice touch, too, and Jordanoff says he's working on it. He's trying to hire strolling violinists.

Jordanoff was the manager of Primanti's in Oakland for many years, but has always been what he calls a "frustrated cook." He opened Old Europe last August, using the name of a similar restaurant that operated in the spot where Cafe Allegro is now from 1982 to 1985 before closing. "South Side just wasn't ready for it then," he says.

He's completely involved in the new Old Europe, from choosing the wines to baking the desserts. An intriguing wine list it is, too, with a nice selection of California wines, and several French Beaujolais, which he feels accompany this type of food well. H.H. and I thought the rich Jadot Beaujolais Fleurie Beaujolais 1995 was perfect with the het vezer tokany. The list also has the Hungarian Bull's Blood, of course, and even slivovitz, the plum brandy. It's popular as an after-dinner drink.

Normally, Old Europe is not a noisy restaurant. But one night when we were eating on the bar side we were treated to intermittent shrieks from a group in a small private dining room. The slivovitz, perhaps?

Jordanoff's desserts have names like dobos torte, rigo janczi and one that even a WASP like me can spell and pronounce: apple streudel. It's his grandmother's recipe, Jordanoff says. Now I know how he got to be such a good cook.

Old Europe
1209-1211 E. Carson St., South Side

Hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5-10 p.m.; Sundays, 4-8 p.m. Closed Mondays.

The basics: Eastern European cuisine; parking lot with meters along side of restaurant; full bar and interesting list of different wines; main dining room is no smoking; seats 70 plus additional tables and booths for 20 in lounge; wheelchair accessible; major credit cards; reservations suggested.

The last word: 3 Stars

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