Small Halls Preserve Ethnic Heritage in the Mahoning Valley
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Mladen Doslovic has a real taste for his native country of Croatia, a taste that he would love others to sample for just one evening.
“I’d love to bring back some of the old-fashioned food from the old country back here,” says Doslovic, the head chef at the St. George Croatian Center in Youngstown. “A lot of the recipes are my mother’s.”
Doslovic was born in what was then Yugoslavia and once worked in a hotel there. When he arrived in the United States several decades ago, he found a job in manufacturing but never lost his passion for his craft as a trained chef. So, when the opportunity to return to the kitchen availed itself about a year ago, he jumped at it.
The center is operated by the Croatian Fraternal Lodge 66, which this year celebrates its 125th year in Youngstown, Doslovic says.
As such, the chef seeks to re-introduce many of its members – and those nonmembers who come in for an evening dinner – to an authentic meal prepared with a Croatian flair.
St. George’s is among several halls and churches across the Mahoning Valley that rent out banquet space for regular dining and special events while striving to maintain a connection with their ethnic heritages.
Many concede that it’s much more difficult to preserve that connection today, as young people leave the area and the population continues to decline. However, Doslovic says that doesn’t mean others in the community shouldn’t make an attempt to sample genuine international cuisine.
“We have dishes that you can’t get anywhere else,” Doslovic says. “Guests from Texas, New Orleans – all over the country – give me great feedback because they can’t find this kind of food over there.”
Dishes such as polenta – a cornmeal made in the regions of northern Italy, Croatia, Switzerland and Slovenia – and wine goulash are popular entrees, he says. “I’m trying to get the schnitzels in here because that’s really big in the old country,” he says.
Schnitzel – from the German word for “slice” – is a particular way to prepare certain meats, Doslovic says. His chicken schnitzel, for example, is often breaded, sliced, then pounded down, seasoned and deep-fried. “The same thing with pork schnitzel,” he says. “Then, I put lemon wedges on top.”
Yet sometimes it’s difficult convincing those who are accustomed to certain tastes to deviate from their standard fare, Doslovic says. “We try to do something new, expand and bring in new foods,” he says. “There are all kinds of different foods I’m trying to introduce as they are prepared overseas. But some don’t want to try anything new.”
Friday evenings at the center are usually the busiest since fish is the main course. And at least once during the year, the center hosts performers from Croatia who embrace the country’s traditional music, dance and culture. Other national acts perform at the hall several times during the year.
The hall is also open for other events, such as weddings, graduations, and birthdays, Doslovic says. Moreover, you don’t need to be Croatian to become a member at the hall, nor do you need to be a member to rent the facility.
“Membership is open to everyone,” Doslovic says, pointing to a large banner with the words “Dobro Nam Dosli” written on it: “Welcome to us.”
Elsewhere across the community, smaller churches and congregations are doing what they can to retain their ethnic traditions.
“We’re having our chicken paprikash dinner at St. Stephen’s in October,” says Mary Rose Purton, secretary and administrator at Holy Apostles Parish in Youngstown. In 2011, St. Stephen of Hungary Church on Wilson Avenue and Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Covington Street in Youngstown combined congregations to form Holy Apostles.
And several times a year, the church makes stuffed cabbages for carry out, Purton says, though she admits it’s difficult to find volunteers and it’s becoming harder each year to meet demand. “Our people come from all sides of town,” she says. “It’s harder to do now because it takes so much time.”
Bereavement dinners, weddings and other events are held at both churches, says the Rev. Joseph Rudjak, pastor at St. Stephen and Sts. Peter and Paul.
“At Sts. Peter and Paul, we host a lot of concerts and receptions,” Rudjak says. Among these are several performances of classical composers throughout the year. “There are about four or five a year with new composers,” he says. Young people from the Dana School of Music at Youngstown State University often perform, as well as musicians from South Africa and New York.
In keeping with ethnic traditions, the church hall on Covington holds Croatian and Polish language classes, the pastor says.
It’s these small halls and churches that help preserve all that is good about cultural foundations.
“This is the heritage of the city,” Radjak says.
Yet the strictly traditional ethnic gatherings are becoming more and more rare with each passing year, notes Lou Fusillo, owner of Fusillo Catering, which leases the hall at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Youngstown.
Pictured: Lou Fusillo, owner of Fusillo Catering at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Youngstown.
“It’s not as ethnic as it used to be, when there was a Greek group, an Italian group or a Polish group,” Fusillo says. “The culture has changed so much so that there are very few ethnic-oriented gatherings here anymore.”
Mount Carmel is traditionally associated with the Italian community, Fusillo says, but the food he serves covers a wide variety of tastes. “Italian food is pretty standard in most places, but tastes have changed,” he says.
He says those booking weddings or special gatherings are starting to trend away from the typical “Youngstown buffet” menu and instead request higher-end dishes such as filet as the main course. “We’re booking into 2019 right now,” he says.
Weddings are also generally much smaller than they were 30 or 40 years ago, Fusillo says. “If you remember, the old ethnic weddings were huge,” he recalls, noting it wasn’t unusual for a wedding to attract 700 or 800 people.
“Today, the average wedding is around 300,” Fusillo notes. “It’s really changed. It’s just not as ethnic anymore.”
Pictured: Chef Mladen Doslovic says his ethnic dishes receive rave reviews from out-of-town guests at St. George Croation Center.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.