The history of Pittsburgh is one cast in steel. A town that gained its reputation as an integral part of steel production during the 20th century has long been known for its large population of immigrants, especially those from Poland. For years, the city’s culinary landscape reflected the hearty, meat-centric dishes from this region. However, in the 21st century, Pittsburgh is taking on a new shine. And as the city evolves, one couple has set out to change the face of what Polish food can be with their vegan Polish restaurant, Apteka.
Since the 1700’s, Pittsburgh has been a city of immigrants. With the steel and glass industries attracting working class families from Europe, the city’s population quickly grew to include a myriad of ethnicities: Italian, Irish and Polish, to name a few. Each wave of immigrants carved out a distinct section of Pittsburgh, creating the unique and varied neighborhoods that came to characterize the social landscape of the city. This was a city of many tongues, all with a distinct taste for the foods of home. And one of the most prominent flavors throughout the city was Polish food.
Perhaps best known for the pierogi, Polish cuisine has long favored hearty, heavy dishes with a focus on bread (or noodles, in the case of the pierogi), root vegetables, and meat. Given the country’s history of oppression, the cuisine highlights common ingredients: hand-foraged mushrooms, wheat, cabbage, potatoes–items that would have been available to everyone from the prince to the pauper. Within this humble pantheon, butter and dairy also play an important role, adding richness to the table.
And so, when generations of Polish immigrants arrived, settled and made Pittsburgh their home, they brought these classic tastes with them. In the decades that followed, the traditional dishes and flavors created a sense of familiarity, an anchor for the many that flocked to the city during the steel and glass boom. And although these comforting dishes would not fundamentally change, Pittsburgh would.
By the 1970’s and 80’s, the big industries of Pittsburgh’s glory days had all but disappeared, creating a vacuum for the city it would become. Now, roughly half a century later, Pittsburgh has sloughed off the sooty image of its past, making a new image for itself in the world of medicine and tech.
Tradition and Innovation Meet
Innovation flows through the veins of the city, reimagining and redefining every industry. It is within this context of evolution that the dining scene has adapted to reflect the interests and desires of the new Pittsburgh palette. Apteka, a vegan Polish restaurant, is the epitome of Pittsburgh’s transition: exploring new territory while holding the city’s history close to its heart.
For years, Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski had run a successful pop-up called “Pierogi Night,” which saw Pittsburghers lining up for a chance to enjoy their monthly special–all vegan, and all made by an intrepid team of family and friends. Having worked in kitchens and bakeries, Lasky and Skowronksi understood the ins and outs of the food world, and were determined to make their plant-based mark.
In 2016, the couple opened the brick and mortar Apteka, a manifestation of their personal histories–Lasky is a sixth generation Pittsburgher, Skowronski is a first generation Polish immigrant–to the delight of their already-loyal fanbase. And the eatery has not disappointed.
Take a step inside and you’ll immediately sense that you have become cooler than you were moments before. The decor is minimal, edging on industrial, with cinderblock walls and exposed lightbulbs above each table. This allows your focus to rest on the eye-catching wooden bar, behind which live shelves of carefully marked elixirs destined for your cocktail. The music ranges from brooding electronic to indie to jazz. And then there is the menu, handwritten on the wall, detailing each item in Polish–a test for even the most confident diner–with an English description beneath.
Apteka is open from 5-10pm Wednesday to Thursday, and 5-midnight Friday to Sunday. The menu reflects this, offering small plates, big plates, sandwiches and desserts.
Pierogies and Beyond
There are, of course, the pierogies. The dough itself is reminiscent of a thicker ravioli, pan-fried until crispy. And there are two kinds of fillings: sauerkraut and mushroom or smoked cabbage and potato. The mushroom filling is unapologetically earthy, while the potato filling speaks to a classic comfort. You’ll get both with your order, served alongside a cool cucumber salad and a spicy red beet chutney. Most of your meal will be spent debating which bite will be your last.
And then there are the less expected, or perhaps just less well-known, dishes: potato dumplings in a lima bean puree, kanapki–tartines with a rotating variety of spreads–and the celeriac schnitzel, impossibly crispy, yet verifiably vegan. This is a stick-to-your-ribs fare that, while deeply influenced by traditional Polish favorites, takes some creative liberties along the way. There are complex sauces, undercelebrated roots and fruits, and all manner of surprising spices waiting for you in the next forkful.
What sets Apteka apart is perhaps not so much its modernization of Polish cuisine, or even its vegan approach, but the way in which it appeals to eaters of all dispositions. While there are many vegetarian and vegan diners each night, there is also a sizable showing of omnivores and those who are label-free when they sit down at the table. No matter the dietary choices, the desire at Apteka is the same: to enjoy a really good meal.
And so they do. This sense of commonality, of a shared desire to eat well, is a testament to the developing food culture in Pittsburgh, the willingness to give vegetable-centric menus a try, and a nod to the past that will forever be woven into the culinary fabric of this city.
Laurnie is a writer and yoga teacher living in Pittsburgh, PA. As a long-time vegan, she is constantly delighted by the growing support for plant-based lifestyles. Outside of the kitchen, she enjoys sharing holistic tools to help individuals live their most authentic lives. You can follow her on instagram @laurnie.wilson.