By Beth N. Gray
SPRING HILL — A much-anticipated Polish restaurant finally has opened its doors in Hernando County.
Since the handsome brick edifice began to take shape along Commercial Way, diners have waited for nearly three years to sit down to plates of pickled herring, potato pancakes, goulash and more at the restaurant, deli and ethnic bakery, Cracovia.
No one may be happier than husband-wife owners, Richard Zabryski and Grazyna Machnik. Also, members of the considerable Spring Hill population of Polish descent — Zabryski estimates them at several thousand — are expressing their pleasure by filling the 180-seat dining room six evenings a week.
Machnik said the couple built as their funds and time allowed while they continued to operate their commercial electrical engineering firm. They also spent a lot of time obtaining the restaurant's old-world Renaissance décor: original paintings, coats of armor and replica weaponry commissioned of artisans in their native Poland.
They promised to employ chefs and cooks from Poland or once-removed natives who grew up with Polish cookery. They've delivered, and then some.
Chef Kamil Tofil, 30, came from Poland as a culinary school graduate with 10 years' restaurant experience in his homeland. Butcher-salumist Peter Mierzwa, 35, operated a school for butchery in Poland. Dining room managers Mark Kowalski and Adrian Wroblewski grew up on a regimen of Polish dishes. Of 32 staffers to date, including six cooks, 30 are conversant in Polish. Most are plucked from the Polish community in Spring Hill.
All employees engaged in a week-long training on menu dishes so they can explain to diners their ingredients, flavors and cooking methods, Machnik said.
Within the restaurant's first month of serving, however, "Mostly, everyone is familiar with Polish dishes," Kowalski noted.
"Strong flavors, bold, salty, black pepper for sure," characterize the cuisine, said chef Tofil. Carrots, celery root, dried vegetables, fresh thyme and rosemary, and majjiga – "a Polish flavor" – figure in the cookery, he said.
Osso buco is the No. 1 choice of diners, as well as the chef.
"It's shank of beef, marinated with beer and vegetables, slow cooked for hours," Tofil said. It's sauced with a marinade demi-glace.
"Potato pancakes with goulash is very nice, very popular," he added. Goulash is served as a hearty soup of beef and vegetables, with Polish bread on the side.
The menu is a work in progress.
"Lots of people asked for kielbasa," Tofil said. Black Forest kielbasa, one of 25 Polish sausage recipes that Mierzwa brought from Poland, is available in the deli and has been added to the menu.
"We serve 40 to 50 portions a day," the chef reported.
Pierogies, awash with melted butter and onion saute, may be the most well-known of Polish fare. They are influenced by Hungarian, Austrian, German and Russian cuisines, Zabryski said. At Cracovia, the dumplings are stuffed with potato and farmer's cheese or sauerkraut and mushrooms.
Kraut, mashed potatoes and a medley of minced vegetables predominate as sides.
Entree prices are in the $20 range.
For those who want to further their Slavic experiences at home, the deli and bakery offer many varieties of kielbasa, as well as smoked pork cuts, hard-crusted and/or seeded breads and filled pastries. All are made on site by artisans of the Polish kitchen. Grocery shelves hold canned and jarred condiments, seasoning blends and sauces, all imported from Poland.
While noting a couple of Polish delicatessens south of Tampa, Zabryski said Cracovia is the only authentic Polish restaurant in the area.
Florida's Nature Coast tourism director, Tammy Heon, based in Brooksville, agreed.
"I did a search on Polish restaurants and found not a one," she said. That search reached south beyond Tampa.
Heon has been eagerly awaiting the restaurant's opening.
"My grandmother made golabkies," she said.
"I'm excited," she added, when she learned that stuffed cabbages are on the menu.
Before moving to Florida 20 years ago, Zabryski and Machnik owned and operated a bar and small Polish restaurant in New Jersey. "Basically speaking," Zabryski said, "this is not our first rodeo."
Contact Beth Gray at email@example.com.