When Alexander Bodnar opened Jozsa Corner in Hazelwood in 1988, he wanted to be a resource for the Pittsburgh Hungarian community, providing a space to enjoy and preserve Hungarian music, dance and language, as well as Hungarian food. On Hungarian Night, which takes place every second Friday of the month, participants often sing folk songs. Some speak Hungarian. But I suspect the real draw, and the reason reservations are required, is the dinner.
Jozsa Corner is first and foremost a place where lucky visitors discover and devour straightforward and inexpensive Hungarian home cooking. On weekdays, people can stop by to pick up such items as soup (chicken, beef or pork; $1.50-$2.50), haluska (cabbage and noodles, $2.50), and palacsinta (fruit crepes, $1.50). But with an appointment, groups of diners (ideally a minimum of four) can come in on weekday or weekend evenings for a multicourse dinner served family style ($11-20 per person).
Showing up at this kind of meal can be a bit nerve-rattling. There's no menu. The main dining space, which Bodnar calls his "Hungarian Living Room," is small and a bit cluttered, a back room accessed through a narrow hallway. Something like a cross between a church hall and your grandmother's sitting room, it is filled with two long tables, an upright piano and a cluttered collection of family photos, paintings and items that might be called knickknacks or objets d'art, depending on your point of view.
- Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; evenings and weekends, by appointment only.
- Basics: Hungarian home cooking.
- Recommended dishes: Fire Bread, Chicken Paprikas, Cabbage and Noodles, Homemade Sausage, Transylvanian Gulyas.
- Prices: Dinners, $11-20 per person.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible, but space is fairly tight; nonsmoking; park on street; cash only; corkage, free.
Since it is essentially a one-man operation, Bodnar has carefully weighed what he can handle, and with no space for a dishwasher, has opted for disposable plates and bowls and plastic utensils. He does have simple wine glasses (it's BYOB), and he always brings out a pitcher full of water. If pressed, he may accept a glass of wine, and in return he is likely to toast your health in Hungarian, a pleasurable trade.
Once the food starts to arrive, all thoughts of disposable dishes will disappear. A typical beginning is a plate of langos, Hungarian fire bread, which is fried in oil and made from a potato-based dough. Langos can be sweet or savory, and functions either as an accompaniment or a more substantial dish, depending on its toppings. First, it came dusted with garlic salt. We piled each piece with lightly pickled onions, as Bodnar directed, that were in a bowl on the table when we arrived, along with a cucumber salad that we were told to save for later. That warm, flaky bread, and the sweet-and-sour crunch of the onions, spoke volumes about the meal that was to follow.
Just as we had made a dent in the langos, Bodnar arrived with our first course, a large black crock of chicken soup that, when opened, filled the room with the perfume of good, homemade chicken broth and plenty of dill.
Meals are likely to include chicken in several forms, as Bodnar clearly starts with whole chickens and then finds ways to use every part. Pork often comes in the form of homemade sausages, of which Bodnar is justifiably proud. These two meats are staples of Hungarian home cooking, because chickens and pigs were small enough to be raised by households, even in cities.
The courses came, one after the other, each served on a platter or in a bowl and passed around the table. haluska, a dish of cabbage and egg noodles, was perfect in its simplicity. The noodles were dense and chewy, more satisfying than this ephemeral starch usually proves to be, perhaps owing to the richness of browned butter. The cabbage had been cooked long enough to lose a touch of its bitterness, but not so long that it looses its pleasant crispness or flavor. This dish, so simple to describe, was immeasurably satisfying and memorable.
Bodnar contributes to the conversation as well as the meal. He loves to discuss Hungarian food (as well as many other subjects) and will never tire of answering questions, though occasionally he may have to depart mid-explanation to check on a course. A dish of Transylvanian gulyas (or Goulash) leads to a spirited discussion about whether it's better to stir sour cream into the dish, enriching it, or to serve it on the side.
This isn't a restaurant, and diners shouldn't expect the military pacing of a tasting menu. Sometimes, a course would arrive before we were finished with the last, contributing to my sole quibble with the experience overall -- some dishes simply weren't as hot as they should be.
Bodnar began his culinary education while still in Budapest, where he would cook with and observe his grandmother. He describes her food as "nothing fancy ... the technique was always very simple, don't overwhelm the ingredients, but rather enhance them." As he speaks of his grandmother, and other female relatives who played a role in his love of and talent for preparing food, Jozsa Corner's identity becomes even more clear. Bodnar is recreating the cuisine of Hungarian kitchens, the food culture developed and produced primarily by women, and the food culture most likely to be lost as the forces of homogenization make their way across the globe. This type of food is difficult to find outside of the native country and the homes of immigrants, because it isn't restaurant food. When translated for restaurants, it tends to lose its soul.
Just as Jozsa Corner is not a restaurant, visitors are not restaurant patrons. They are Bodnar's guests, with all that old-fashioned ideas of hospitality entail. Bodnar himself said it best, "People who come here and eat my food and taste my food and enjoy my food, they automatically become part of my family." And a very lucky family we are.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1198.