Hungarian eatery on North Side grows from roots of sacrifice
Steven and Emerencia Banai always had a clear vision of the life they wanted.
In 1956, the couple fled violence in their home nation of Hungary, leaving behind everything they knew.
“They had their vision of what freedom represented and what privileges as American citizens we have in this country,” says their daughter, Judy Torma of Reserve. “They had a crystal-clear vision, like it was a poster on the wall that they looked at every single day. Failure was not an option.”
Today, Torma has her own vision. She has set out to honor her late parents using the very lessons of hard work and sacrifice they taught her. Torma and her husband, Michael, own Huszar on the North Side, a former watering hole they’re transforming into a restaurant showcasing the best of Hungarian cuisine and culture.
“Mom used to always say, ‘If you have two hands and two eyes and a dream, anything is possible,’ ” Torma says.
The word “huszar” refers to an elite military figure that rode on horseback in the Hungarian army during World War I. Torma’s maternal grandfather served as a huszar, a fact the family remains proud of today. It’s just one part of the family’s history Torma is hoping to let live on through her business.
The Banais came to the United States as refugees of the Hungarian Revolution, a movement against the government and its Soviet-imposed policies. When demonstrations broke out Oct. 23, 1956, though, the couple did not leave right away.
“My father was very interested in making Hungary a free nation,” Torma says. “He was involved in local politics in his town, and he was also involved with running food staples to the actual fighting that took place in Budapest.”
When the Russians came back in full force a few weeks later, the couple knew staying was no longer safe. People were being executed, sent to Siberia or jailed. The Banais and their two sons, Alexander, then 3, and Stephen, 6, piled into a dump truck with several others from their town and went as far as they could. Unbeknownst to Emerencia Banai, she was pregnant with Judy.
The group of 13 walked miles through the woods in the middle of the night, reaching a point where the Russians had dug a trench to flood it so people could not make it to the border. Somebody had cut down a tree and thrown it across the water. The 13 all held hands and walked the length of the tree to get to the other side.
Yet, the most terrifying part of the journey was to come.
“They were stopped by soldiers, and for a brief moment didn’t know what would happen,” Torma says. “If they were Russian soldiers, they would have been shot on the spot. Luckily, they were Hungarian soldiers who made them renounce their citizenship. Right past that, there were the welcome arms from the Austrian community on the border.”
Torma has the welcome letter her parents received when they finally stepped foot on Austrian ground. They went on to Germany, then on Christmas Eve traveled to New Jersey, and on Jan. 1, 1957, arrived in Pittsburgh, where a Hungarian Lutheran Church in Hazelwood sponsored them.
“Pittsburgh had a very thriving Hungarian community with churches, butchers, schools and clubs,” Torma says. “Many worked in the mills.”
The couple had an idea of what American life meant long before their journey. Steven was a veteran of the Hungarian army who had been captured as a POW by the Americans in Germany during World War II.
“He had blankets and cigarettes and canned food from the States, and that to him was like the Holiday Inn,” Torma says with a laugh. “It had a lasting impression on him about life in America.”
The family settled on the North Side, then later Mt. Washington and Troy Hill. They paid their first home off in five years. Steven Banai worked for United Oil, and Emerencia Banai took a job with a catering company.
“Their life was difficult, but for me, as a young child, I was totally absorbed in the American lifestyle,” Torma says. “When they would tell us stories, I didn’t want to hear any of it. I actually was annoyed a lot of time and even harbored resentment that my life circumstance had to involve these foreigners. … I was living the American Dream and did not even know it.”
In 1973, when Torma was 16, her parents finally were able to travel back to visit the home they’d left nearly two decades prior. They brought their daughter along, much to her dismay.
Torma had no idea the trip would change her life.
The family traveled to Emerencia Banai’s mother’s home. Emerencia’s oldest brother had recently passed away, and she was heartbroken.
“I will never forget that unleashed emotion that she exhibited,” Torma says through tears. “It made me realize what they actually did, the sacrifices they made, what they actually accomplished by leaving and what they provided me.
“I vowed on that trip that I would never dishonor them again. When I landed at the Pittsburgh airport, I knew what it felt like to be an American. I knew what it felt like to be Hungarian. And I knew what it felt to be free and alive. For the first time, I knew what it felt to be grateful.”
The following year, Torma traveled back to Hungary on her own and returned every summer while in school. She immersed herself in the culture, language and music and, in 1985, was granted a scholarship to study and folk dance at a university in Hungary for a year. She met her husband, Michael, at that time.
In 1990, Torma’s parents bought a bar called the Recovery Room, which fell into disrepair over the years.
Torma had left her job at UPS several years ago to care for her ailing parents. On Jan. 16, 2015, Emerencia Banai died at 91. Nine days later, Steven Banai, 89, followed. They’d been married 65 years.
Grief-stricken, Torma decided to take her father’s business and transform it into a place dedicated to their memory. She started with renovations, replacing the walls, floor, furnishings and bar. Next, she set her sights on the menu.
Cooking had been Emerencia Banai’s passion. For 32 years, she worked at the Terrace Room banquet facility in Parkway Center. The kitchen operated on a no-waste system.
“This is the kind of cooking that was made from staples,” Torma says. “What we recognize today as chic ‘farm-to-table,’ my mom was doing 90 years ago.”
Huszar’s menu will include homemade Hungarian dishes, such as soups, meatloafs, stews and savory crepes, and smoked sausages and imported cheeses. Torma has been searching for months to find the right chef to help her develop a permanent menu.
While she’s creating her own little piece of Hungary here, Torma travels back to the real thing frequently. She and her husband plan to return later this year for the 60th anniversary of the revolution.
“I want to be somewhere in the mix with all of the main dignitaries,” Torma says. “I’m nobody special, but in the same token, I am. I’m perhaps the youngest member of Hungarian heritage that left in 1956. … I just want to be there for my mom and dad.”
Rachel Weaver is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.