Remembering restaurateur and Hungarian cultural ambassador Alex Bodnar
In 1982, the corner of Second and Hazelwood avenues was not necessarily a promising spot to launch a business. The neighborhood was struggling in the wake of industrial decline. Live train tracks ran behind the big three-story building, and just beyond, along the river, loomed the sprawling LTV Coke Works – the last vestige of Big Steel within Pittsburgh city limits, and all the odors that went with it.
That was the year Alex Bodnar bought that corner building. The 40-year-old Hungarian immigrant renamed it the AJB Professional Arts Building, and made it a home for his advertising and marketing firm, as well as a center for the preservation of Hungarian music, dance, language, and food.
But it was Hungarian food in particular that would come to represent Bodnar’s legacy in Pittsburgh – all that chicken paprikash, all those bacon roasts, and the community they helped build. “The minute you come to the restaurant and break bread with me you become part of the family,” he would say. His tiny, reservation-only restaurant, Josza Corner, was one of a handful of local establishments featured on the 2017 Pittsburgh episode of Anthony Boudain’s CNN show “Parts Unknown.”
Bodnar died Feb. 26, at age 79, after a year-long bout with cancer.
Friends and family recalled Bodnar’s dedication to his adopted community (he lived in Hazelwood, too).
“I kind of think of him as an ambassador for Hazelwood to the outside world,” said Heather Mull, a friend and neighbor. “Because he loved it here and he created this whole community around his restaurant, and he just wanted other people to be part of that.” Mull, a photographer, said that when she was considering moving to the neighborhood in 2005, Bodnar drove her around pointing out houses for sale.
Bodnar was barrel-chested, with a booming voice, big mustache, and even bigger presence.
“Alex had an amazing personality,” said Jennifer Vickers-Bodnar, his wife of 29 years. “He had the ability to bring people together. He had the ability to make people feel special. And he was a wealth of knowledge as far as history, as far as Hungary. … And plus you add food to it, what can go wrong?” she added, with a laugh.
Bodnar was born in 1942, in Hungary. In 1956, as a teenager he participated in Hungary’s unsuccessful 12-day revolt against Soviet rule. The following year, he emigrated to Pittsburgh with his parents. He graduated from Penn Hills High School and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and went on to work in advertising and marketing.
Vickers-Bodnar met him in 1985, when she was a Chatham University student seeking an internship. It was not long after he had bought the Hazelwood building, and Vickers-Bodnar said he had big hopes for the neighborhood. But the coke works lasted longer than he expected (it wouldn’t close until 1998) and desktop publishing crippled the business.
“He had to figure out what his next move was going to be and what he wanted to do, and he loved cooking, and he did it so well,” she said. Bodnar had learned cooking from his grandmother, and he made everything from scratch. In 1988, he took over the first-floor restaurant space from a sub-shop owner who was retiring and launched Josza’s Corner.
He tried operating as a full-time sit-down restaurant, but “[I]t was really, really tough,” she said. The gregarious Bodnar improvised, crafted hand-held snacks out of the Hungarian fried dough known as langos, filled with spiced beef and cheese, and selling them in traffic on Second Avenue. Though that scheme brought more people to the restaurant, Bodnar eventually settled on a reservation-only business model that survived three decades — until all restaurants were ordered closed in March 2020, after the pandemic began.
The restaurant was small and homey; patrons often dined on the sidewalk outside, weather permitting.
His most popular dish was the chicken paprikash with homemade dumpling and cucumber salad, said Vickers-Bodnar: “The chicken just melted right off the bone.”
Bodnar loved to keep busy. “Until the end, he was on the go,” said Vickers-Bodnar.
He was a past president of the 15th Ward Chamber of Commerce, served on the Hazelwood Greenway Committee, and was a former council member and trustee of the First Hungarian Reformed Church, in Hazelwood, where he was a member for three decades.
Bodnar was also a member and past president of the Hungarian Ethnic Group of Pittsburgh, and worked to raise the profile and quality of celebrations of traditional Hungarian culture here – even going so far as to bring in choreographers from Hungary to teach local folk dancers.
Barb Conner, of Fayette County, was one such dancer, and recalls practicing on the spacious third floor of his Hazelwood building. “Alex definitely was the catalyst,” said Conner, whose grandmother was Hungarian but whose upbringing provided little education in Hungarian language or culture. “He believed in what he was doing. He shared his love and passion for it, and he was helpful. And he was ultimately kind.”
Conner said after dancing with the troupe for a couple of years, she went on to other pursuits before reconnecting with Bodnar several years ago for gatherings like the traditional Hungarian bacon-roasts he’d hold on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. (Vickers-Bodnar said he continued holding the roasts even after the pandemic formally shuttered the restaurant.)
But Conner also recalls a private gesture that moved her: After her mother died, Bodnar came to offer condolences – and a package of homemade Hungarian food.
“That’s a guy. That’s a helluva guy,” she said.
In addition to his wife, Bodnar is survived by his mother, Ari Bodnar, his brother Peter Bodnar, and three children, Geneva Wentz, Peter Kenneth Darcy and Alexis Bodnar.
A viewing will be held Fri., March 11, at the William Slater II Funeral Home, in Carnegie. The funeral is Sat., March 12, at First Hungarian Reformed Church of Pittsburgh. (A Zoom option of the services is also available.)
In lieu of flowers, charitable donations can be sent to the First Hungarian Reformed Church of Pittsburgh, 221 Johnston Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15207.