Pizza becomes king of Polish cuisine

July 07, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

WARSAW -- Forget about kielbasa. Don't even mention pierogis or bigos.

Nowadays, the undisputed king of Polish cuisine is pizza.

"It's crazy, but it's true," said Janet Choynowski, an Alabama native and co-owner of Pan Pizza, one of the most popular pizza parlors in Poland. "People can't seem to get enough of it."

Since the fall of communism two years ago, Poland has undergone many changes. But few were as conspicuous as the change in eating habits caused by the increase in private restaurants.

Two summers ago it was almost impossible to eat anywhere but in a state-owned restaurant with lackadaisical service and limited menus.

In recent months, however, enterprising foreigners and ambitious Poles have transformed ramshackle buildings into quaint eating establishments specializing in Japanese, Vietnamese, Cuban, Cantonese, Sichuan, Greek, Italian and Spanish cuisine.

That is welcome relief for tourists and foreign residents. But with the country mired in painful economic reforms, few Poles can afford to eat even in the most moderately priced restaurant.

For them, fast food is the answer. And the fastest-selling fast food in Poland is pizza.

"There is definitely a pizza craze in Poland," said Jreneusz

Korzeniewski, 37, co-owner of Bambola, the first, biggest and best-known chain of pizza parlors in the country.

"For so many years under the Communists, fast food didn't exist. Now people can walk in and have a meal in the middle of the day or whenever they want. They love it."

Earlier governments in Poland would not allow the kind of private enterprise that generates pizza parlors, and as in other countries in Eastern Europe, consumer satisfaction was not a national priority.

Mr. Korzeniewski and two partners opened the first Bambola in February 1990. Since then, two more Bambolas were added, each bigger than the one before.

Bambola is famed for its cartoon logo with a pudgy pizza thrower and its Pepto-Bismol-pink dining rooms.

"We chose pink because when we started up Barbie dolls were a big craze [in Poland]," Mr. Korzeniewski said. "Everything associated with Barbie was colored pink. So we decided to cash in on that."

Throughout 1990, Bambola had the fast food market mostly to itself. Now, the chain is overwhelmed by competition.

"One reason pizzas are such a big success is because it doesn't take a lot of culinary expertise to make a pizza or to enjoy one," said Ms. Choynowski, who, with her husband, Peter, opened Pan Pizza two months ago.

"Also, with pizza, the ingredients are readily available and you don't have problems with quality. I'd hate to have to try to run a hamburger stand and make sure I got quality meat in this country."

Problems in ensuring quality meat and potatoes are two reasons McDonald's has yet to move into Poland. However, the U.S.-based chain does plan to open its first restaurant here next year.

Until then, the fast-food market is destined to be dominated by pizza.

"Business is so good we're trying to open two more shops," said Jerzy Szymczak, owner of Pizzeria Positano, a tiny, out-of-the-way eatery that is a favorite of Italian diplomats.

Pizzeria Positano offers one of the widest selection of pies in town -- 37 varieties, lasagna and free salad with every order. Prices range from 25,000 zloty to 50,000 zloty, $2.25 to $5.50 at current exchange rates.

The selection is somewhat smaller at Bambola (only 17 varieties) but prices are similar. The most elaborate pizzas rarely cost more than $5, usually closer to $2.

"With the economy the way it is, we have to keep prices low," said Ms. Choynowski, a native of Mobile, Ala., whose Polish-born mother-in-law joined in the move to Warsaw.

The name of her restaurant, Pan Pizza, is a play on words. Pan in Polish is roughly equivalent to mister. It also is the only place in town that serves a pale imitation of the deep-dish pizzas made famous in Chicago.

The pizzas are only slightly thicker than traditional thin-crust pies. But they are a favorite among foreigners, including the Irish ambassador, who visits as often as three times a week.

"The Poles don't really know what real pizza tastes like," Ms. Choynowski said. "That's why we have ketchup on every table. The Poles wouldn't dream of eating a slice of pizza without pouring ketchup all over it. You have to give the people what they want."

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