Pierogies came with Polish immigrants—and never left the city.
Cleveland has earned an unbecoming reputation as a member of the Rust Belt—a swath of cities that at one time dominated the U.S. steel and coal industries, and faded into economic decline in the 1960s. But while Cleveland may have gleaned a “rust” from its industrial past, it also earned and has happily kept something more appealing: a taste for pierogies.
Polish immigrants came en masse to this Midwestern city in the twentieth century, in search of the jobs created by its industrial growth, according to Case Western University. By 1900, Cleveland boasted 32 Polish grocery stores and 67 saloons; and by 1930, its Polish population had grown to 36,668 people. And these Polish immigrants came bearing many pierogi recipes.
And though Cleveland’s Polish population has waned—the city claimed just 1,635 Polish people in its 1990 census—the city’s love of the potato-filled pockets never left.
“In Cleveland, you could be Polish or you could be Middle Eastern—but whatever you are, you know what a pierogi is,” says Bernie Sokolowski, co-owner of Sokolowski’s University Inn, a popular Cleveland spot that regularly sells out of its pierogies on weekend nights.
“When tourists come in, I’ll recommend that they try the pierogies, and you’ll hear, ‘What’s a pierogi? I’ve never had a pierogi,’” Sokolowski laughs. “So, I have to sample pierogies out.”
Pierogies are, at their simplest, dough dumplings stuffed with puréed potato and cheese—boiled or pan-fried—and served with sautéed onions and a healthy dollop of sour cream.
Clevelanders once bought a whopping 850,000 pounds of pierogies in a single year, a study by supermarket brand Mrs. T’s Pierogies shows. (In the 2009 study, the city trailed behind only five other cities.) And that’s to say nothing of the pierogies they buy from local retailers.
Google “Cleveland pierogies” and you’re met with dozens of retailers’ and shops’ websites: Pierogies of Cleveland offers 34 kinds, including yam-and-walnut, prune, and lasagna flavors. Perla Pierogies seems to specialize in sweet pierogies, with apricot, strawberry, apple, and cherry on its menu—plus vushka mushroom, pilmeni-meat, and vegan for good measure.
At Polish Eats, you can order standard potato-and-cheese pierogies—plus sauerkraut and cabbage, jalapeno and apple, bacon and apricot to boot—in ten-packs you can take home.
Pierogi Palace launched in 1995 at the city’s revered West Side Market. Co-owners Rhonda Raidl and her son, David Blaha, opened the business after it became clear that their pierogi-making hobby could be lucrative. “Everyone said for years, you should open a business, you should do this for a living,” Blaha says. The shop now has some 200 varieties of pierogies, including apricot cheese, BBQ bean, bourbon meatball, pumpkin cheesecake, Philly cheesesteak, Szechuan green beans and chicken, and chicken paprikash, to name a few.
Pierogi Palace’s best-sellers, Blaha says, are its traditional potato and cheese, mozzarella mushroom, and taco—a mix of ground beef, cheddar, and taco seasoning. Pierogi Palace sells “a minimum of 200 dozen pierogies a week,” says Blaha, who was boiling a batch of traditional pierogies as we spoke by phone. “We do everything from scratch,” he says.
But it’s not just pierogi-centric spots where you can find excellent ones. At Melt Bar & Grilled—a local chain with a menu made of grilled cheese sandwiches—guests can order a grilled cheese sandwich topped with potato and onion pierogies, fresh vodka kraut, sautéed onions, and sharp cheddar. (It’s the Parmageddon, if you were curious.) At Prosperity Social Club, a vintage games room and craft beers spot, bar patrons can order three types of pierogies: potato, farmhouse cheese, and loaded potato (with bacon), according to its menu.
Sokolowski’s University Inn, which was honored in 2014 by the James Beard Foundation as an “American Classic,” opened its doors in 1923 and began selling housemade pierogies in 1961, when Sokolowski’s mother, Marion—a Polish immigrant—decided to make lunches for the steel workers who were constructing the nearby Innerbelt Bridge. “Pierogies were a quick way of getting a meal—getting some substance—into you,” Sokolowski says.
“When I was a boy, you would go to the local churches with a little container and walk into the gymnasium, where ladies would be making pierogies, and for a small amount of money, for like $3, you’d get enough pierogies to last a week,” Sokolowski recalls. “I would guess it was because it was what they knew how to make and it carried on through generations.”
But Clevelanders don’t just eat pierogies. Every June, Cleveland’s pierogi lovers line up for an annual Pierogi Dash. Hosted by the city’s Slavic Village, the 5K run and walk kicks off with live polka music and ends with a meal of pierogi, smokies, and beer, its website says.
A friend, who lives in the neighborhood where the race takes place, swears the streets smell of pierogies for days after. But she doesn’t mind. “It smells heavenly,” she says.