A Restaurant in Brooklyn Offers the Food and Feeling of Moldova
In the heart of old Brooklyn, on a prosaic stretch of Coney Island Avenue that runs through Midwood, among auto body shops and fast-food joints and commerce catering to Orthodox Jews, you will find what looks like a village house in the old country, with a forest in back and a quaint monastery in the distance.
To many Americans, such a presence may evoke Romania or Poland or some other Eastern European location. Those from the tiny Republic of Moldova would know better. It is a restaurant, succinctly named Moldova; it is the only one dedicated to Moldovan cuisine in New York, and one of only a few outside the Moldovan homeland itself.
Moldova, nestled between Romania and Ukraine, is a landlocked state in the northeast Balkans. It is a picturesque, largely rural nation once known as the garden of the Soviet Union. It also is considered the poorest country in Europe and has one of the highest emigration rates in the world, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Of the tens of thousands of Moldovans who have arrived in the United States since then, relatively few have ended up in New York. One immigration organization estimates that there are around 5,000 Moldovans in the city; Radu Panfil is one.
Mr. Panfil, 35, immigrated from Moldova in 2005, leaving his cellphone store in Chisinau, the capital city, for better opportunities in America. He began working in various New York restaurants — first as a waiter, then as a manager — and a dream developed. While there is a sense of community among expatriate Moldovans in Brooklyn, there was no authentically Moldovan place for them to gather. Thus the restaurant Moldova was born.
“From the beginning,” Mr. Panfil said, “it was set that it is going to be the place where people from our country get together, to feel that they are at home, not to forget the customs and traditions from our country — and the smell of hot mamaliga.”
With the help of many fellow Moldovans, Mr. Panfil opened Moldova in July 2012. As you enter from the busy avenue, the convivial feel of the old country is immediate. Inside the “casa mare” — a Moldovan concept roughly translated as “big room” — are plaster walls of wedding-cake white juxtaposed with dark floors and roof beams; intricate rugs hang alongside indigenous artifacts and curios. The waiters and waitresses wear traditional hand-stitched shirts; jaunty folk music pipes through the sound system. On holidays and during banquet events, musicians perform in the elaborate back room, canopied by lush vegetation to resemble a Moldovan forest. A 240-square-foot mural of the country’s famous monastery, Tipova, covers the back wall.
The menu at Moldova is a tribute to Balkan staples: hearty soups, smoked and fresh fish, grilled and braised meat, stuffed cabbages. Cornmeal appears often, most treasured in the side dish known as, yes, mamaliga, a distinctly Eastern European take on polenta, served alongside grilled house-made sausages, peas and onions.
The restaurant has drawn local Eastern Europeans, culture hawks and curious foodies from Brooklyn and beyond, and, naturally, fellow Moldovans.
Galina Frunz, 25, left Moldova in 2008 but still misses her homeland. While spending time in Coney Island, she saw a sign for the Moldova restaurant. “I got so excited,” Ms. Frunz recalled. “I had told my friends all about our culture and cuisine, and this was a chance for them to see for themselves. Me and all of my friends fell in love with this place.”
Intent to capitalize on what seems a potent desire for Moldovans to eat mamaliga among their compatriots, Mr. Panfil opened a sister restaurant last August in Philadelphia, where there is a large expatriate and Eastern European population. Not to mention a majority of Americans unfamiliar with the tiny Republic of Moldova.
“Who knows,” Mr. Panfil said, “maybe I’m not going to stop here. In U.S.A. there are many beautiful cities, and Moldovan culture has definitely a lot of things to show.”
Published on The New York Times: Where the Hunt for Mamaliga Ends