Polish comfort food has a happy following in Naples.
The international flavor of Naples comes out — deliciously — in its niche food markets. Of those, the European Food Market focuses on the cuisine of Poland.
Polish cuisine is hearty fare and includes many different kinds of cured meats and multi-textured dishes, such as stuffed cabbage. And at the European Food Market, proprietors Elzbieta and Henryk Popielarz put extensive tradition in preparing their dishes.
"We sell many, many products and prepared dishes, but a few include kielbasas, pierogies, really good ham that isn't too salty and beer which we have from different countries," Elzbieta Popielarz said of its inventory. "We sell a lot of sauerkraut and pickles. Actually we have homemade sauerkraut — and stuffed cabbage, of course."
Popielarz makes the stuffed cabbage several times a week, steaming the leaves until they are ready for the stuffing, which she makes from scratch with rice, pork, fried onion, salt and pepper, perfectly rolled in cooked cabbage leaves. Her customers have established such a demand for the dish that she must make her stuffed cabbage dishes several times a week.
Popielarz did not grow up in a restaurant, but has always loved to cook.
"I grew up in a bigger village in Poland, but I am not a city girl by any means. I do most of the cooking and love to cook and bake," she says of the cooking she does between the couple's Naples market and second location in Fort Myers. "I learned to cook from my parents, and although we are not restaurant people, we cook together, eat breakfast and dinner together and the night supper, we always eat together."
Even today Popielarz says when children in her family come home the family always eats breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Customers pick up on Popielarz's enthusiasm for her cuisine. It has added to the European Food Market's popularity among locals — Neapolitans by birth and those who have come over from various parts of Europe.
"In Naples there are a lot of European people, and they are looking for food they used to eat when they were living in Europe, so we do have Romanian, Polish, German, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Croatian people," she says. "We love to make them happy, so sometimes when the people come over to the our store they can see the product they loved in their country."
In addition to the stuffed cabbage, one of the dishes that makes native Europeans happy is Poland's answer to stuffed goodies. Traditional Polish pierogies are small morsels of filling contained within tiny white dumplings. At European Food Market, customers can get pierogies filled with everything from sauerkraut and mushrooms to cheese and potatoes or just cheese, among many other varieties.
Some of the other dishes that keep Popielarz in the kitchen include a flavorful vegetable salad. Popielarz makes the vegetable salad with carrots, peas, potatoes, eggs, pickles, mustard, salt, pepper and mayonnaise.
"Everything is all chopped by hand, like everything else we make," says Popielarz, who also carries a vast selection of dried mushrooms. "Ours are wild mushrooms that we sell all year around, but we sell the most around Christmas time to go with the dishes we prepare for that time of year."
Another item that gets native European and foodie hearts thumping at European Food Market? Herring.
"A lot of people like herring and we have a herring fillet that is beautiful so we sell a lot of that. Smoked fish also is a best-selling item here," says Popielarz.
"People usually eat it with a piece of bread and make a sandwich, but you can enjoy the smoked fish in a salad or even in a pasta dish."
Suggestions for first-time visitors on how to enjoy Polish food have helped Popielarz's customers feel comfortable trying prepared dishes and ingredients that are unfamiliar to them. For all of the products on the shelf that have Polish labels, Popielarz has created English labels to help new customers come to know the various ingredients.
"For people who have never really tried Polish cuisine or are first timers, I encourage them to come in and try some of our homemade Polish food, especially the kielbasa, and we can tell customers how to prepare the different kinds of foods," she says. "Plus we always give the people a taste of the products in the cooler."
If you go
What: European Food Market
Where: 5437 Airport Pulling Road North (in the north end of the Bed Bath & Beyond Plaza)
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday