With the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, it’s no surprise that in Chicago pierogi is almost as popular as pizza. The national dish of Poland, pierogi inspires great reverence throughout the Chicagoland area.
A pieróg is a dumpling of unleavened dough stuffed with a filling. Variants of the fundamental dish are found across the globe, with each culture offering a unique take. Notable examples include the Italian calzone, Latin American empanadas and Asian pot stickers. Quite versatile pierogi can be boiled, baked or fried, sweet or savory, and served as an entree, side or dessert. Common fillings for pierogi include meat, cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut and fruit.
The Eastern European dumpling takes center stage each July at the annual Whiting Indiana Pierogi Fest. Roughly 30-minutes from the Illinois border, Whiting is a tiny city in the far northwest corner of Indiana. Less than 5,000 people call Whiting home, but nearly 200,000 visitors flock to the town every summer for the festival. With a third of a mile of downtown Whiting packed with food vendors, Pierogi Fest is a celebration of Eastern European culture and unrepentant American gluttony.
Visitors can indulge in an overwhelmingly wide selection of pierogi along with other Eastern European favorites like golabki (stuffed cabbage), halusky (cabbage and noodles) and kolacky (filled pastries). The food selection isn’t limited to cabbage-based dishes and pastries, though. There are still festival staples like funnel cake, meat on a wooden stick and pizza.
In January 2013, a Beggar’s Pizza opened in Whiting. That year, the south side Chicago pizza chain participated in Pierogi Fest and offered a piergoi and pizza hybrid dish called “pizzarogi.”
This year, the curiously-named dished piqued my interest. Still, I had to overcome my skepticism. I’m always wary of chain pizza restaurants. Beggar’s recently reached a deal with the Chicago White Sox to become the exclusive pizza served at US Cellular Field. In my experience, “multiyear partnership agreements” is not an essential ingredient for high-quality pizza. This, paired with the fact that they have 22 locations clustered primarily in the south suburbs and northwest Indiana, make the Beggar’s chain large enough to make me apprehensive of the pizzarogi.
A noble pizza journalist, I decided to set my concerns aside. I was at Pierogi Fest and, dammit, it was my duty to answer the pressing questions about pizzarogi. Was traditional pierogi dough used in the preparation of pizzarogi? Were pizzarogi nothing more than miniature calzones? Was cabbage involved?
Street price for pizzarogi was $4 each, or $10 for three. A dollop of marinara cost a buck extra. This was pricey. Especially since the average price for pierogi at the festival was a dollar, with discounts for bulk purchases.
Cheese, sausage and pepperoni pizzarogi were available. I ordered three sausage pizzarogi with a side of marinara and a can of Pepsi for a total of $12. The pizzarogi were much larger than regulation-sized pierogi, helping to justify the high cost.
The woman behind the counter at Beggars placed my pizzarogi into a neat cascading pattern within a cardboard tray. She ladled a heap of marinara over the top, and dusted the pizzarogi with powdered parmesan cheese. Since I am staunchly anti-parm, it was troubling that she did this without my permission.
Powdered parmesan cheese can sit on a restaurant table for decades without going bad. This goes against the natural order of the universe! Proper dairy products need refrigeration and have an expiration date. Powder parmesan cheese must anger the gods. Other than a salty flavor and an odd smell, I also don’t believe that dried parmesan dust adds much to pizza and is only suitable for the direst of pizza-related situations.
I set aside my contempt for this wretched condiment, my distrust of pizza chains and hybrid foods and dug in.
The pizzarogi were deep fried, which was glorious. The outside layer of dough was a crispy, orange-brown shell that protected an airy, chewy interior. The texture reminded me of a fresh-made donut, which is why I now consider frying pizza dough to be a form of magic.
The buttery doughy exterior gave way to the fillings of cheese, sauce and sausage. The molten cheese was perfect, with a mild flavor and springy chewiness. The sausage had benefited from the frying process, where no moisture could escape from the core of the pizzarogi. It was moist and tender with hint of garlic. The meaty flavor of the sausage stood out and it was clear that I was eating pork and not a spiced mystery meat. The marinara sauce was on the sweet side. But I was still happy that I’d paid the extra dollar for it.
My newly-opened mind was quite pleased with the pizzarogi. Beggars did not mate two cultures by cramming pizza toppings into traditional pierogi dough. Instead, the pizzarogi were miniature calzones. The relationship between pizzarogi and pierogi was in name only. This may have been a gimmick, but customers were well served by the results.
During the 20013 Pierogi fest, pizzarogi was so popular that they earned a permanent spot on the menu at Beggar’s Whiting location. Unfortunately, the pizzarogi didn’t go over as well with locals and was banished from the menu a few months later. Today, pizzarogi remains a limited-time offering that is only available during Pierogi Fest. Sadly, I’ll have to wait until next year to enjoy this delicious and expensive treat again.
- “Pieróg” is the singular form of the word “pierogi,” but is rarely used. Only a fool would eat less than two pierogi in a single sitting
- The official website of Pierogi Fest is a .net domain name. As of July 2014, pierogifest.com is available for $1,795.
- While writing this, I kept misspelling “pizzarogi” as “pizzaorgi.” If you have any details about pizza orgies, please let me know and I will be happy to report on them.
- Mr. Pierogi exits!