Carl Funtal has spent most of his adult life as a tough guy, protecting the public as a sergeant with the Shaler Township Police Department. Truth be told, he's really kind of a softie.
Despite his commanding appearance -- at 6 feet, 3 inches (6-4 in his motorcycle boots) and 275 pounds, he dwarves most folks -- the Pittsburgh native isn't afraid to admit he likes to . . . cook.
He's particularly good at making the comfort food of his youth that speaks to his Polish-Russian-Czech-Austrian heritage, and the one that he'll dish up this weekend at South Shore Riverfront Park during the city's newest food fest: Pierogies.
As a kid growing up in Brookline, Mr. Funtal watched as his mother, Laura, rolled out and then cut big hunks of soft dough into circles to be stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese. He doesn't recall helping out too often, but somehow, maybe through osmosis, he learned.
By the time he married and started raising children, he'd garnered such a reputation for his exquisite potato dumplings among family and friends (the dumplings often were included on the party spreads he catered during off-duty hours) that one day, someone told him he should be making them professionally.
"And I said, 'You're crazy! No!' "
Then again, maybe making a few batches here and there and selling them as a fundraiser might be a fun way to help cover the cost of his daughters' dance lessons.
"When your kids are in activities, you're always selling something," he says, "so I thought, 'Why not?' "
Last year, that paternal labor of love evolved into Cop Out Pierogies, a small storefront on Butler Street in Etna (copoutpierogies.com; 412-973-0068). For $6.75, you can buy a cop's dozen (14) traditional potato-and-cheese pierogies, or you can spend a little more for one of the specialty flavors, which run the gamut from Buffalo Chicken to Spring Roll to Cheeseburger to sweet Lekvar, a thick Eastern European jam made from prunes.
Or maybe you'd like to try the more seasonal Pilgrim Pierogie, a plump conglomeration of turkey, potato, corn and fresh cranberries. He'll have an ample supply of those Thanksgiving-style dumplings, too, at Saturday's first-ever Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival.
"It's like a ship in a bottle," he says. "You don't know how it all gets in there."
Better late than never
The brainchild of Riverlife Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the free fest will feature nearly a dozen pierogie vendors and/or restaurants along with live entertainment and children's activities. There also will be a pop-up pierogie market selling everything from pierogie T-shirts and onesies to jewelry, crocheted ornaments and all sorts of other swag; and attendees can snap photos with the likes of Sauerkraut Saul and Cheese Chester. It was the latter who logged the most wins this year at PNC Park (22) running the Pirates' signature 280-yard Pierogi Race at home games. The fest runs from noon to 5 p.m., rain or shine.
All proceeds will benefit the recently completed South Shore Riverfront Park (riverlifepgh.org), the $13-million, 3.4-acre park in front of Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh that will play host to the event and that extends the SouthSide Works retail complex down to the Monongahela River. Activities will take place near the terraced, 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.
"It's a wonderful space that's just begging for an event like this," says Riverlife's director of communications Stephan Bontrager, who over the summer, with folks at the URA and Revive Marketing Group, came up with the idea as a way to promote the park. "It'll be a nice fall day, with crisp air, and the comfort food of pierogies in all different forms." (And different spellings.)
He's not kidding. In addition to Mr. Funtal, scheduled vendors include the Polish Pierogi Truck, which will be serving at least three varieties; S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District; Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth, who will trot out a family recipe; and Marty's Market, which will offer a sweet-potato pierogie.
If you're from Pittsburgh, where pierogies are among the city's most celebrated foods, no doubt you're saying: It's about time! After all, we've got festivals for just about every other ethnic edible imaginable on any given weekend throughout the area. You'd be right.
"Coming here 12 years ago from Denver, I'm fascinated with the pierogie culture in Pittsburgh," says Mr. Bontrager. "It's such a cool regional food thing. I know a lot of Rust Belt cities that can call claim to it, but this city has a solid stake in that horse race. . . . It's one of those Pittsburgh pride things."
All signs point to the inaugural event being a runaway hit. Close to 500 people already have RSVP'd on the festival's Facebook page, which leads organizers to expect upwards of 1,000 or more.
"The response has been incredible," Mr. Bontrager said. "And the wonderful thing is, the park can accommodate everyone comfortably, whether you're arriving by bike, boat or car."
A Pittsburgh thing
Traditionalists might consider Mr. Funtal's new-fangled flavors sacrilege, and it's hard to blame them. Generations of Pittsburghers have grown up on pierogies lovingly hand rolled, filled and folded by church ladies at parishes such as Saint Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ambridge and St. George's Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brighton Heights.
Many more pray at the altar of Pierogies Plus, the down-to-earth McKees Rocks shop in a not-so-converted gas station that's been cranking out the tasty dough pockets in the Polish tradition for more than 20 years. A media darling, the Island Avenue store has been featured on The Food Network and in national magazines such as Saveur, which in 2011 included it on its annual list of 100 great food finds.
Gosia's Pierogies in Latrobe, which uses a "secret" recipe handed down from the owner's grandmother in Poland, also has a devout following, as does Szmidt's Old World Deli in Greenfield (and soon to be in Garfield) and S & D Polish Deli in the Strip District, where 15 varieties are made with Polish flour.
But the times, they are a-changin'.
The new wave
If a survey of the Pittsburgh restaurant scene is any indication, you no longer have to be of Slavic origin to make a good dumpling. Nor do you have to stick to the traditional fillings of potato-and-cheddar or cottage cheese. Pierogies have become a popular ingredient among a growing number of Pittsburgh chefs, who have been using them to spice up everything from hamburgers to steaks to the dessert menu.
Church Brew Works, for instance, recently had both rattlesnake and alligator pierogies on its menu, and Eleven tops its prime beef ribeye with a dumpling stuffed with pastrami. Braddock's offers pierogies ranging from Braised Short Rib to Buffalo Chicken to Chocolate and Peanut Butter. At Franktuary, you can get your dog "Pittsburgh" style, or topped with a smooshed pierogie and slaw, and a fried pierogie also is a topping option at Burghers in Harmony. Knossos Gyros in Dormont has (what else!) pierogies filled with lamb carved off the cone and tzatziki sauce. And at Rowdy's BBQ and Fatheads, they're deep-fried to a golden brown as an appetizer.
The list goes on and on.
Pierogies also have joined Pittsburgh's expanding food-truck scene via Polish Pierogi's Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck. Before they ceased operation late this summer, the duo behind Peddlin' Pierogies sold gourmet pierogies made with organic spelt flour from the back of a bicycle, as well as at Inn Termission Lounge on the South Side. Their non-traditional flavors included Buffalo Blue Cheese and Curry-Sweet Potato.
Speaking of preparations and flavors your Polish babcia might never had considered, Downtown's Sinful Sweets occasionally includes a chocolate-dipped pierogie on its menu. And Mr. Funtal, who will open a small sit-down space in front of his commercial pierogie kitchen in about a month, offers more than 10 different Pie-Rogies, or dessert pierogies. This time of year, Pumpkin Spice and Apple Maple Walnut Cheese Cake are among the more popular varieties, but he also sells a heck of a lot of Banana Split and Freaking Fudge pierogies. And kids, says his wife, Beth, who works part time in store with their 16-year-old daughter, Sydney, love their PB&J dumplings.
"They can't get enough of them," she says.
Despite being something of a newbie, Cop Out Pierogies already has proven it's got some chops: Not only does it supply more than a half-dozen restaurants including Atria's with pierogies, but it also grabbed the No. 2 spot this June on Pittsburgh Magazine's 2013 Best Restaurant Reader's Poll, when it had been in business for only nine months. Mr. Funtal now makes between 300 and 500 dozen a week with help from his family when he's not busy keeping Shaler safe. (He mixes, rolls and cuts the 30-pound chunks of dough into circles while his wife and daughter fill the dumplings.) He plans on doing an open house on Nov. 23.
He credits much of his success to his dough, which includes sour cream and is cut by hand using a metal milkshake cup. The result is a pierogie that's not quite like a snowflake, but obviously not one of those mass produced, 12-to-a-pound pierogies, either.
"People like that," he says. "A consistent taste but slightly different texture" with each bite.
But Pittsburgh's love and never-ending appetite for the dumplings plays a big part, too.
"They give comfort," he says.
Pierogie-making has become his passion. He loves the challenge of coming up with the next winning flavor combination (to date, his only failure has been one filled with spaghetti) and also gets so much pleasure out of interacting with satisfied customers.
"Nothing makes me happier than when an 80-year-old comes in here, and she comes back and tells me they taste just like Mom's," he says.
"I can't wait," he adds, "until the Pierogi Festival," especially the naming of the people's choice pierogies. "I'm very competitive, so it's going to be fun."
For more information about the Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival, you can check out the fest's Facebook page or follow it on Twitter @pghpierogifest.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.