Restaurant is woman's slice of her native Transylvania
The oldest of four children, Elizabeth Kastal grew up cooking for her siblings while her parents were working in her homeland of Transylvania.
“There was chicken paprikash, and we had stews, beef stew, pork stew, all kinds of goulashes, all kinds of soups,” said Kastal, 59, of Ligonier Township.
“I wasn't thinking of being a cook,” she said. “That just happened here when we came to the United States.”
Kastal came to the country with her two daughters in 1984 in the pursuit of freedom, a few years after her husband, Laszlo “Leslie” Kastal, immigrated though sponsorship from the Hungarian Reform Federation.
Since then, she has used the cuisine of her homeland to feel at home in her adopted country.
Kastal and her family own and operate the Darlington Inn, a restaurant in Ligonier Township that serves Transylvanian-Hungarian fare made from scratch. Since opening in 1996, she has worked to develop her own corner of Transylvania along Darlington Road through her cooking.
“You know what is very nice? When people come in here and then once they eat my food they say, ‘Oh, it reminds me of my mother or their mother.' And they say I'm bringing back memories for them,” she said.
When Kastal came to the United States, she was full of ambition.
“I wanted to do everything,” she said. “I thought I could change the world.”
She worked as a cook for 14 years at the Bethlen Home. Learning to read recipes in English was challenging, but she persevered.
“My husband said, ‘Don't worry. You know how to cook. You just feed them,'” she said.
Her boss at the Bethlen Home, Edith Kovach, taught Kastal a lot and pushed her to continue cooking.
“She encouraged me,” Kastal said. “She told me that it is in my blood and I have to do it.”
As a side job, Kastal started offering catering services for parties and weddings, devising a menu based on her own Hungarian-inspired recipes as well as dishes she learned to cook back home.
Eventually the operation grew too large for her home kitchen, so she started looking for a bigger space.
Kastal had a friend who lived near the Darlington Inn, which was up for sale at the time. Initially, Kastal and her friend were going to open it as a restaurant together, but her friend relocated. Kastal opened the inn's doors for business in 1996.
Her menu features a variety of Transylvanian-Hungarian dishes, such as chicken crepes, goulash and Hungarian-style lamb. On Saturdays, Kastal serves an all-day buffet with stuffed cabbage, drop noodles and homemade bread, as well several alternating dishes.
Kastal envisioned her restaurant becoming a place where people could experience Transylvania, with information about its culture and history.
“I couldn't exactly do what I was planning, but I did the best I could,” she said.
Transylvanian music echoes through the restaurant, and photographs and mementos from Kastal's homeland serve as decor. She strives to maintain traditions, such as celebrating Farsang, an annual Hungarian carnival that celebrates the end of winter and the coming of spring. On Feb. 15, she will host her own celebration of the holiday at the restaurant, wearing a traditional Transylvanian dress.
The area where Kastal lived was formerly a part of Hungary. Today it is known as Gyergyoszentmiklos, Romania.
With four grandchildren, Kastal thinks it is vital for younger generations to know their cultural background.
“I think it's very important, and the food is one of the best ways to remind them of their culture,” she said.
She has taught her grandchildren some of her recipes, including crepes.
“It is very important for us to teach the young ones because if not, it is going to die with us,” she said.
Her daughter, Klara Baker, 41, of Cook Township said Kastal puts her heart and soul into her cooking.
“She always tries to pass it down and teach us,” she said.
Baker's daughter, Chelsy Vitanza, 21, is very enthusiastic about learning her grandmother's recipes and often offers to make dinner for the family.
“It's kind of neat because she's doing what my mom is doing,” Baker said.
Vitanza enjoys learning recipes from her grandmother because the food is so different from what most restaurants serve.
“This is just a way of showing other people what (Kastal's) traditions are and who we are as a family and where she came from,” Vitanza said.
When she first moved to the United States, Kastal felt like she was just away on vacation and longed to return home. It took about three years for her homesickness to dissipate.
“This is my home now,” she said. “I think I'm happy here.”
Ligonier is quite similar to Kastal's hometown, she said.
“The mountains, even the Diamond, that's how our city is, only a little bigger,” she said. “This is smaller, but even the setting of the town, it is exactly the same and all the mountains. It looks very much like home.”
Kastal was once driving along Route 30 when she noticed how similar the trees and roads are to those in her hometown.
“It felt like I'm coming home,” she said. “It felt good, that I'm coming home. Now this is my home.”
Immigrants acclimating to life in the United States “have to feel at home in their small surrounding,” Kastal said.
“Just decorate up your own little corner,” she said. “Put your music on. Make your own home.”
Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or firstname.lastname@example.org.