Almost every Sunday during the summer, there are roast-lamb picnics at the Croatian Center of Millvale. I heard about the picnics from a friend who heard about them from a woman she sat next to at the bar at Stagioni restaurant on the South Side, who said you can get the details from the Croatian Center's Facebook page, but only after you click "like." So I did.
Sussing out the details was a challenge. The only thing I found on Facebook after I "liked" it was a non-working phone number and a posting that read, "Sunday, June 23, Lodge 19 will be having their picnic. Music will be the Joe Grkman Polka Orchestra, and lamb will be by Zlatan Banovic. Weather will be hot and muggy. Plenty of cold drinks will be available. Enjoy."
Not a lot to go on, but by then, I was committed, awash in nostalgia.
Every summer when I was growing up, our family held Slovenian picnics in South Park. Aunts and uncles played cards, kids ran around, ethnic food spilled out of coolers onto tables and polka music played on the Canonsburg radio station. Some older people spoke in a language I couldn't understand. Others told stories about the old country. I remember ball games, the aroma of sizzling kolbassi, mosquito bites, scratched knees and sleeping in the back seat of the Buick on the way home. Wouldn't a Croatian picnic be like that?
I have friends who are always up for my proposed adventures, and I talked them into coming with me. At a well-marked sign for Schuetzen Park Road, we turned off busy Babcock Boulevard. Driving up a narrow, winding, tree-lined road, we felt the decades peel back with every turn. By the time we made it to the clearing on top of the hill, we could have been in the 1950s.
We pulled into the parking lot around noon and paid our $4 admission fee. Inside a high fence, we saw an old house, four shelters, a dance floor, picnic tables, a ball field and a kids' playground. Some things don't change even when they're different, I thought.
Scouting a table in the shade, we arranged a tablecloth and utensils. A white-haired senior at the next table called over, "The lamb's not here yet."
At 12:20 p.m., a dusty, dark green Subaru Legacy wagon rolled up and braked on patchy grass beside the smallest shelter. As men began to unload parcels, everyone stood up, just like church. "Better get in line right away," someone called to us. "Sometimes the lamb runs out."
We joined the queue and moseyed along with others towards the shelter. Everyone, many quick enough to grab a long-neck beer, was friendly and eager to tell their stories.
"Back in the day, you had to get here at 11 a.m. to even get a table," said Mike Shuker of O'Hara, his wife, Kim, nodding. "We'd have 25 or 30 family members here. The first ones to arrive would push tables together. We'd order about 20 pounds of lamb for the table. I've been coming since I was a babe in arms. The one year I didn't come (I was in high school, so what did I know?), my mother cried. Most of those people are gone now, but I still love the picnics and bring my friends."
"Get your lamb, get your beer, get your onions and bread and dig in. Get greasy," yells slim and handsome Dario Barisic of Moon as we pass his table. He was first in line, and his plate is heaped high with fat-glistened lamb.
"I emigrated from the Eastern part of Croatia 11 years ago," he said. "I was a singer and dancer and played the tamburitza. I married a Tamburitzan dancer."
Behind us, Millvale's Mark Frankovich heard us talking and joined in. "My grandparents came over from Croatia," he said. "They bought a farm near here, and I pretty much grew up working on it. I remember plowing the fields with horses. We came up here for Sunday picnics in summers. The shelters you see here came later, but there was a dance hall and a special place for speeches up the hill. We had to use outhouses in the early days. Oh, boy."
"My grandparents grew up in Milvale, and I've been coming here my whole life," added Lynn Frohnapfel of Beechview. She pointed to an open play area at the far end of the picnic grounds. "That's where my Uncle Andy taught all us kids how to polka. We weren't allowed to go on the big dance floor until we knew how to do it right." When a couple is dancing, she said, nothing moves from the waist up. No churning, no swaying, no choppy motions. Dancers move from the waist down, gliding around the dance floor. Fast or slow, the polka is graceful.
Almost everyone we talked with was Croatian, related to a Croatian or knows a Croatian. More than a few people were buying 5 or more pounds of lamb for their picnic at home. No wonder the supply can runs out.
The shelter where the lambs are served is small, maybe 10-by-12-feet, open on three sides. Four men were working the counters. A young man handed out bags of soft sliced white bread, roughly chopped onions and napkins. A second man intensely whacked hunks of hot lamb into manageable pieces. The third one took the order, weighed the portion, wrapped it in white butcher paper and collected the cash. "Choose shoulder, ribs or leg, $15/pound," he told me.
The fourth man was Jared "Red" Lordon, co-owner of Allegheny City Smokehouse on the North Side. Although he's a chef and meat roaster, that day he was a floater, and took time to give me the rundown on who's who and what's what.
"Zlatan Banovic (he's the man chopping the meat) emigrated from Croatia," Mr. Lordon said. "He had a day job, but on weekends he ran a side business of roasting lambs for 25 years for these Croatian picnics here at Schuetzen Park, and at Kennywood Park, as well.
"Last summer, [Mr.] Banovic decided to sell his house in Marshall-Shadeland along with the smokehouse that is on the property. Thomas Balestiere (he's the heavy guy taking orders and weighing the meat) is the owner of Fat Tommy's Pizza in Market Square. He bought both [Mr.] Banovic's property and the roast-lamb business."
The plan is for Italian Mr. Balestiere and Irishman Mr. Lordon to work the roast lamb weekend business together. They met when Mr. Lordon was chef at NOLA on the Square. Mr. Banovic came out of retirement to work this Croatian picnic because many customers are his personal friends.
"The lambs, weighing about 30 to 35 pounds, come from Rudy Mamula's farm in Monaca," said Mr. Lordon. "They are slaughtered to order, about three days in advance. We only did six today because it's early in the season. When we come back in August, we'll roast 12 to 15.
"The lambs are spit-roasted in the traditional way inside the smokehouse over natural lump charcoal for five hours," he continued. "The spits hook up to a chain rotisserie system. The smokehouse is big enough to hold a big SUV, or about a max of 20 lambs. I wear a respirator when I walk in there. The first time, I didn't wear a mask and was sick for three days. I learned the hard way."
After the lamb is cooked, it takes two men to slide it off the spit and onto a chopping block. There, the animal is broken down into shoulder, leg and rib portions, wrapped in butcher paper to keep it hot and transported to the site in a cooler. Portions average 3 to 7 pounds, Mr. Lordon says.
When it was our turn, we each ordered a pound of shoulder lamb and took leftovers home. (Drat! We forgot to get our side dishes and drinks.)
A large food shelter sells ethnic food to supplement the lamb: kolbassi on a bun, $4; hotdog, $2; homemade pierogies three for $2; ham barbecue sandwich, $3.
Helen Simunovic encouraged us to try her halushki. "You mix lots of cabbage and onions with noodles, salt, pepper and margarine," she said in heavily accented English. "A lot of the younger ones just don't want to do the work or get involved. That's a shame. I've been coming to the picnics for 35 years. I'm a member of Lodge 19, and we sponsored the picnic today. Whoever has the picnic picks the person who makes the lamb."
I bought a dish of halushki for $2, returning later for desserts. Most of the cookies and cupcakes are from a bakery, but a few homemade specialties and strudels are sold later in the afternoon. Proceeds from food sales aid the lodges that sponsor the picnics.
Tim Pruitt was tending bar, but he's not Croatian. "My wife, Anita, is half Croatian, half Slovenian," he said. "We drive in with the family from Chicago when my father-in-law's lodge is the sponsor." A 20-ounce bottle of Croatian Karlovacko beer is $4, other beers are $2, a shot of slivovitz is $3 and a mixed drink from the back bar is $2.50.
By 2:30 p.m., the Joe Grkman Polka Orchestra was tuning up on the bandstand in the dance shelter. We took a pass because we were ready to nap, not dance.
There are four more picnics this summer. You'd be welcome. Pack a hamper, pull a few green onions from the garden and time-travel back a few decades. And don't forget the salt shaker.
Marlene Parrish can be reached at 412-481-1620 or, email@example.com.