Have you ever seen a chimney cake before? In Romania, the treat is called kürtoskalács, and after seeing it on one of Andrew Zimmern's shows, I never thought I'd encounter one in the flesh in Orange County. But then, one Saturday, there it was, being made right before my eyes. A woman was rolling dough into long strips at a table outside of Goodies In the Pantry, the Romanian deli and butcher shop I had come to Orange to visit. She wound the dough ropes around cylindrical spits as though they were twine. She then placed them over a heat source to rotate slowly and cook. When they were done, she rolled them in sugar and nuts. I knew I needed to take one home, but not before I went inside to survey what other discoveries I'd find.
Goodies In the Pantry resembled something out of a quaint Eastern European village. Entering through the back door, I encountered two tiny tables with antique-looking woven fabric as tablecloths. A small sleeping cot was butted up against the wall. In front of it, an area was made to look like a hearth. On an opposite wall, shelves groaned with jars of sauce, boxes of biscuits and big bottles of orange Fanta. Adjacent to this, I saw pictures of a burly man wrestling a sturgeon. Soon, I would meet that man.
As I walked to the front, he greeted me, reaching across a deli-meat case to offer his enormous hand. He introduced himself as Claudiu Giorgioni, the owner of the shop. I would later find out that before he opened this store, Giorgioni was, among other things, a sturgeon farmer in Romania and, not surprisingly, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion. That sturgeon never had a chance.
A warm and doting host, Giorgioni offered samples of the cooked meats and sausages from his lunch-special choices until I found something I liked. And if you're there to purchase one of his homemade sausages or hand-carved steaks, he will tell you how best to cook it. Giorgioni is essentially a one-man show. Though he has two people working with him, they are behind the scenes. Since he's attentive to everyone who walks into his shop, expect a wait when there are more than two customers in line. It's a reminder that this isn't Costco, where the meat is cellophane-wrapped and the workers anonymous. Giorgioni's Goodies In the Pantry is a gem—a butcher shop from another era.
If you're there to have lunch, consider yourself lucky if Giorgioni has made sarmale, meat-stuffed cabbage rolls, which he describes as Romania's most famous dish. It's served warm, bursting with ground pork and dolloped with a glop of cold sour cream. Depending on the day's offerings, there could also be chicken sautéed with mushrooms, roasted beef chuck, even ribs. The side dish is most often mashed potatoes, but without fail, there will always be pickled cabbage—something I never knew every meat-and-potatoes dish needed.
You should never leave Goodies In the Pantry without buying a few pounds of Giorgioni's fresh sausages. His Romanian sausages, seasoned with allspice and packed full of garlic, tastes almost Korean. His Transylvanian sausage—for which he uses lovage, a celery-flavored herb—is not as bold, but just as flavorful. On another visit, I brought back English bangers made in the traditional Cumberland style with nutmeg, mace (the spice, not the weapon) and sage. After searing the sausages in a pan and finishing them in the oven, my kitchen filled with the aromas. I realized then that there was no need to supplement the dish with the usual onion gravy. Served plain with some mashed potatoes out of a box, it was the best bangers and mash I've ever eaten.
For most of his sausages, Giorgioni suggests pan frying, then adding a bit of water to steam it to doneness. No matter how hard I tried to overcook them, none ended up being less than tender and juicy. I've yet to sample his Italian sausage, but my Italian friend swears that it's the best she's had, perfect when paired with peppers and polenta.
Perhaps the most ringing endorsement of Goodies In the Pantry was from a Romanian customer I spoke to while waiting in line. He told me that within Orange County's sizable Romanian community, the skinless version of the Romanian sausage I had is most coveted. He told me Giorgioni takes advance orders for it, and in his opinion, Goodies In the Pantry's is far better than the version produced by the county's other Romanian butcher. I've since looked up that other butcher, and guess what: It also offers kürtoskalács! Who knew?! . . . I guess OC's Romanians did.
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Goodies In the Pantry, 1108 E. Katella Ave., Orange, (714) 615-4420; goodiesinthepantry.com. Open Mon., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sausages, $5.99 per pound; lunch, $5.99-$11.99.