The Youngstown Menu is ‘Thing of the Past’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Twenty years ago you could safely rely on seeing a familiar, if not somewhat predictable, menu while attending a wedding in the Youngstown area.

It typically looked like this: pasta with meatballs, baked chicken, green beans, parsley potatoes and salad with Italian dressing.

“Certainly not what it is today,” says Anthony Ciminero, from his office inside Ciminero’s Banquet Centre in Niles.

With a few exceptions, the traditional Youngstown wedding menu, say area caterers, is a thing of the past.

“With the internet, now people aren’t wanting to do the normal things,” says Jeffrey Chrystal, chef of Jeff Chrystal Catering in Youngstown.

Chrystal runs the business with his wife, Nora, who says they usually cater about 40 weddings every year, and they almost never serve the old favorites.

“We don’t do that much anymore,” Nora says. “Brides are so customized.”

The growth of the internet and the popularity of social media sites such as Pinterest are making people more willing to taste new foods and concepts, says Chrystal, who’s been cooking in the area 40 years.

“Twenty years ago, when I would go to food shows throughout the country, it might take five years for trends to get to our city. Now, with the internet, it happens immediately,” he says.

It used to be that a bride- and groom-to-be would choose from a list of about 10 dishes, which would be all a caterer had to know how to cook. Not so today. A menu Chrystal is preparing for an upcoming wedding includes humus, tabouli, fresh codfish, roast leg of lamb, spanikopita (a Greek spinach pie), carved roast beef and macaroni and cheese with twice-smoked bacon and panko-bread crust.

And that’s just part of the menu.

“Totally different today,” says Lisa DelGarbino, event planner for Leo’s Ristorante in Howland.

“Today a lot of the parents pay, but it’s all the bride and groom’s ideas and input.”

And a majority of the bride and grooms DelGarbino meets with are “foodies,” she says.

“They dine out more. When we were young, we barely went to a restaurant.”

Leo’s caters about three weddings a month, whether at its banquet rooms in the back of the restaurant or off-site. DelGarbino, who grew up in the area, has been working in the business since the 1980s, or as she puts it, “a long time.” In addition to wanting more exotic foods, customers are asking for more variety. One of the ways caterers are accommodating them is by adding appetizers to the menu.

“Little cheesecakes in glass. Little chocolate cups filled with mousse. It’s more about elegant little finger-pastries today,” DelGarbino says.

Ottavio Musumeci, the chef and owner of Station Square Restaurant in Liberty Township, says clients expect caterers to be able to exceed expectations, no matter the request.

“They want it to be impressive. Especially the millennials,” he says.

Musumeci, who began his professional career in Italy in 1988, says he caters about 20 weddings a year, including many Jewish weddings.

“We have to cook kosher, so we can’t cook in this kitchen because it’s not kosher. We have to bring in kosher chicken, kosher lamb, kosher beef.”

Catering to specific ethnic requests is both a challenge and a point of pride for area caterers. DelGarbino recalls serving a pierogi appetizer on a small glass plate with a dollop of sour cream for a bride who wanted the wedding to reflect her Polish heritage.

“Greek people love grape leaves served at their wedding. Indian people love the couscous. Italians love everything,” she says with a laugh.

Ironically, the one food caterers almost never get a request for anymore is wedding soup.

“I think we served it one time last year,” recalls Nora Chrystal.

Ciminero, who sees more requests than the other caterers, estimates he only serves wedding soup at about 10% of his weddings. The Youngstown cookie table is another matter altogether. While other traditional foods have fallen out of fashion, the cookie table is as popular as ever.

“It’s a must-have,” says DelGarbino.

Chrystal estimates at least 90% of her weddings feature one, while Musumeci says, without a doubt, “every wedding we cater has a cookie table.”

“You’re kind of frowned upon if you don’t have one,” chuckles Ciminero.

Caterers attribute the popularity of cookie tables to two factors. The first, says DelGarbino, is the ability to impress guests. “Every family wants to be known for having a great cookie table,” she says. The second, is that they allow family and friends to take part in the wedding through their cookies.

“That is such a gesture of love to the bride,” Chrystal says. “Her aunts are baking and her friends are baking. I do love a cookie table.”

But while couples aren’t passing on the cookie tables, more and more guests are passing on the cookies themselves.

“Probably because of the newer generation,” DelGarbino muses. “They don’t eat carbs and sugar and all that good stuff.”

Ciminero says he’s seeing a similar decline in the popularity of cake as more people are “watching their waistlines.”

Instead, caterers report, guests are filling up their doggy bags with late-night snacks.

“That’s a big trend. I’m doing it every week,” DelGarbino says.

Usually served toward the end of the evening, the late-night snack is one last dish that helps soak up the night’s drinks and holds guests over until bed. Sometimes it’s even served in a to-go bag as guests leave.

“It could be little tiny gyros or little sliders,” Chrystal says. “I’ve done pretzels to-go with cheese sauce. Sometimes I go another route and do breakfast sandwiches.”

For a Polish wedding, Ciminero recalls serving a late-night snack of borscht, which is a beet soup.

“Today’s couples are asking, ‘What can we do that’s different than that wedding?’ ” he says.

And no matter what the happy couple determines that to be, Jeff Chrystal says the only proper response for any caterer worth his salt, is “Yes.”

“The definition of catering is doing what somebody wants done.”

Pictured: While Ciminero’s sees fewer requests for wedding soup at weddings, couples are “frowned upon” if there is no cookie table, say Donald, Matthew and Anthony Ciminero.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.