City’s lone Hungarian haunt celebrates 20 years in Hazelwood

They don’t make guys like Alexander Jozsa Bodnar anymore. They don’t cook like him, either.

At 14, Bodnar traded the comfort of a sheltered childhood for the militia. He took to the streets of Budapest, swapped gunfire with the Soviets, and blew up their tanks in the Hungarian Revolution — a grassroots attempt to liberate Hungary from Stalinist rule.

It was October 1956. Peasants fed the young freedom fighters in their kitchens, warming them up with hearty chicken paprikas and good, homemade dumplings.

Today, Bodnar serves these and other tales from his past alongside the fare of his native Hungary at Jozsa Corner, his restaurant in Hazelwood.

This year marks the restaurant’s 20th anniversary, something of a remarkable milestone considering the fact that it’s a one-man operation in one of Pittsburgh’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.

“If I depended on the local community or my sub-cultural community, I would’ve starved to death long ago,” Bodnar says. “I depend on word of mouth, people looking for a certain kind of charm.”

He’s amassed a devoted clan of regulars over the years, and they know the drill: If you want the charm, you make an appointment with the chef.

Bodnar is usually at the restaurant from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, but he likes patrons to call ahead and let him know they’re coming. For evenings and weekends, the call is a must. Give him a few days’ notice, and he’ll open the place just for you.

Jozsa Corner does have a short menu, but it’s best to leave the particulars in Bodnar’s hands. He’ll bring out course after course and probably pack you some goodies for the ride home, too. On a recent afternoon, The Tartan took a spot behind the counter to watch him in action and sample the recipes that have been his livelihood.

Bodnar keeps a cramped but cozy kitchen. To the untrained eye, it’s a mess of baking sheets and soup pots, spice bottles, and nicknacks. To him, it’s organized. Hungarian folk music blares from a clock radio, setting the mood. He floats through the hodgepodge in a green apron, black clogs, and round-rimmed glasses — singing, clapping, kneading dough, grabbing this and that, slapping his knee in time with the beat.
“Then you kind of do a hop,” he says before sitting down to rest. “My knees are killing me.” Bodnar’s got a lot of moves for a 65-year-old man. He’s heavy, but he carries the weight well.

He’s making langos (LAHN-gosh), a fried Hungarian flatbread.

The music drawls on while he works. What’s this song mean?

“Young lassies, you better adore your man,” he booms, dunking discs of puffy dough in boiling oil. “Lay him in your feathered bed and give a kiss to his funky drunken mouth.” His accent is thick, a mash-up of Hungarian and Pittsburghese.

He flips the langos once, then again, before sprinkling on his secret blend of spices. “These are succulent and crunchy morsels,” he says, passing them over the counter. It’s paper plates and plastic forks all around — there’s no fancy silverware at Jozsa.

Up next is haluska; cabbage and noodles. It’s like the Pittsburgh favorite halusky, but it’s simmered longer for a stronger flavor and darker color. Then comes Transylvanian gulyas (GOO-yash), a spicy tomato-based stew of cabbage and pork with lots of paprika stirred in. Think New Year’s pork and sauerkraut, except good.

The main course: chicken paprikas (PAP-rih-kash), the staple of the Revolution. Hunks of chicken melt off the bone in this nicely spiced broth, and a sour cream garnish gives it balance, as does the side of creamy cucumber salad.

“How does gypsy make chicken paprikas?” Bodnar asks. “The first step,” he answers himself, “is to steal it.” He’s got a wily sense of humor. The other jokes? Let’s just say they’d make you look twice if you saw them in print.

For dessert, it’s palacsinta — crepes rolled with strawberry and apricot preserves, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. There’s no added sugar; the sweetness is all in the fruit filling.

Bodnar’s mantra can be tasted in all the dishes, but it’s the palacsinta that exemplifies it best: “You don’t overpower the medium, you enhance it,” he says. “It’s nothing fancy, just right to the point.” That makes sense — palacsinta was served every Sunday on his grandmother’s farmstead, where he learned to cook in the provincial style.

The few dozen regulars appreciate the simplicity. Mark Dudas, a longtime customer and friend, calls in to say hello. “Alex is a trip without the acid who cooks like grandma,” he says. “He’s a pleasant peasant.”

Another regular, John Kerekgyarto, agrees. “There’s no place else to go,” he says from a kitchen counter barstool.

Still, feeding the Jozsa Corner faithful for 20 years has been something of a struggle.

Nighttime chaos in Hazelwood was a big problem at first, Bodnar said. “It was mayhem, whores running around, open containers, dope peddlers.” The windows got shot out or bashed in a few times. Someone spray-painted “Alex is dead” on the outside of the building. But none of that intimidated him.

That’s not surprising considering what he’s been through: The man cut a bullet out of his leg with a pocket knife (the proof’s in the scar), survived the tank blast that decimated his family’s apartment building in Budapest, and braved the minefields of the Iron Curtain after the Soviets crushed the Revolution.

He escaped to Austria through Hungary’s Gyor province and made stops in London and New York City before meeting up with his parents in Hazelwood the next year at age 15. He graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1965 and went to work as a graphic designer for the next 20 years.

By 1988, he’d had enough. He decided to open the restaurant that year after “the bottom fell out of the ad market” and the chaos in Hazelwood got so bad that he didn’t want to leave his home at night to deliver graphics to the printer.

Bodnar still lives in the neighborhood today, a short distance from the restaurant with his wife Jennifer and his 15-year-old daughter, Alexis. It’s not as bad as it was in the late ’80s, he says, but it’s still not in great shape.

Statistics obtained from Bob Gradeck in the Center for Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon show that Hazelwood’s population dropped 58 percent between 1960 and 2000. Half of its population was not in the labor force in 2000, and about 70 percent of Hazelwood residents never earn more than a high school diploma.

“I consider Hazelwood a shell,” Bodnar says. “It’s perfect to rebuild.”

He’s tried himself over the years. He used his graphic design talents to create informational pamphlets bearing messages such as “Market building — it’s time we did it” and “The future belongs to those who are willing to build it.”

But most of the people — in his words — “didn’t get it.”

And they didn’t have to. Nobody goes to a restaurant for the neighborhood it’s in. As long as the regulars come back, and as long as curious folks make trips to the little hole-in-the-wall Hungarian place they maybe heard about somewhere, Jozsa Corner will stay put.

“I’ve put up with a lot of happy horseshit around here,” Bodnar says with a grin.

But it’s worth it.

“I’ve had a lot of beautiful people come through here.”