Pol Vault

Pol Vault

Just up the block of State Street that holds New Haven’s only Polish church—St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr—is the city’s only Polish delicatessen. But unlike the church, whose history stretches back to 1896 and a wave of Polish immigration to Connecticut, PolMag Deli is a newcomer, just two years old. It’s the only place in the city where you can savor a fresh paczki with your morning coffee or feast on golabki for lunch.

When a longtime Polish deli on Grand Avenue closed a few years ago, Magdalena Stradowski (pictured above) found herself driving to Ansonia and New Britain for the Polish products she loved. She and her husband, Wojciech, realized New Haven had a need that they could fill, even though she says New Haven’s Polish population isn’t what it was 20 years ago. “A lot of, you know, older generations have passed away, and the younger… don’t keep the tradition. It’s not the same. But you know what? There are a lot of local people who love to shop here.”

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She tells me to pour myself a cup of coffee (the milk is from Poland, packaged European-style in cartons that don’t require refrigeration until opening) and picks out a delicious, finger-sticking paczki—a puffy glazed doughnut with aromatic rose petal jam filling—for me.

Most of the packaged items on the grocery shelves at PolMag (a hybrid of “Poland” and “Magdalena”) are imported straight from Poland—herbal teas, Wedel chocolates, mustards, pickles, beets with horseradish, plum preserves. The shelves are filled with cans and jars and packets. If you don’t know the language, you’ll have to look at the pictures. Or ask. Stradowski is happy to field questions. One answer: The raspberry syrup is meant to be added to tea, but some customers buy it for their home-carbonated water.

Products that aren’t imported from Poland are delivered fresh. Polish butchers in greater New York provide turkey, chicken, veal, pork loin, bacon and several kinds of sausages, many of them free from preservatives. Two Polish bakeries in New York City regularly deliver sourdough and whole grain breads, butter crescents (“slightly sweet like a challah bread”), big square rolls baked in a stone oven and a variety of desserts including poppyseed-stuffed pastries and five different kinds of cheesecake.

Stradowski stocks frozen packages of pierogi and other dumplings, too, including a Christmas Eve favorite stuffed with mushrooms and meant to be served with barszcz (borscht). “My boys love it, oh my God!” she exclaims, pulling out a package. “If I cook only red barszcz, that’s it. They won’t eat anything else.”

The rest of the PolMag menu comes straight from Stradowski’s kitchen. Offerings change weekly, but she cooks her own pierogi, soups, stews and stuffed cabbage rolls (the aforementioned golabki). She holds no professional cooking credentials. Hers come straight from the farm where she grew up in southern Poland, a mountainous region along the Dunajec River.

It was a “little farm,” just big enough to sustain her family: two parents and seven children. “We didn’t have to shop at all,” Stradowski says. The family grew their own vegetables and grain. They kept one cow and picked plums, cherries and walnuts from a few orchard trees. Her parents “raised us to know how to survive in case of anything. That’s why cooking, baking, gardening—it’s my stuff,” she says, laughing.

Stradowski and her husband met and married abroad in Greece and immigrated to the United States 20 years ago after winning a lottery for green cards. “It wasn’t easy, you know, all the papers, all the screening and everything,” she recalls, adding, “It was a lot of money, too. But it was worth it.” They came, she says, for “the American dream,” the hope of giving their children—three sons all born later in America—“better than we had.”

But she still waxes nostalgic about her Polish home and the land her father saw as “sacred.” It remains in the family today. She describes a lake on one side of the farm, and “from my sister’s windows, early in the morning, you drink the coffee and you see the peaks of the mountains with the snow on it… I’m telling you, when I go there, I just breathe the fresh air.”

State Street may not provide much in the way of fresh mountain air. But thanks to the Stradowskis, it does provide treasured tastes of home and heritage for some—and a chance for others to give those tastes a try.

PolMag Deli
820 State St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 8am-4pm, Sun 8:30am-1:30pm
(203) 498-5700

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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