Beef, Beets, and Deep-Fried Dough

Hopewell’s Newest Farm-to-Table Restaurateurs Specialize in Eastern and Central European Fare

By Ilene Dube | Photos by Jeffrey E. Tryon

When Otto and Maria Zizak purchased 52-acres of preserved farmland in Hopewell and set the plans in motion to open a farm-to-table restaurant on the township’s main drag, they had no idea that a pandemic was about to strike, one that would lead to an economic crisis that would shutter more than half of all restaurants.

In the best of times, 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first year of opening, and 80 percent within five years, according to a study by Ohio State University. One thinks of Marhaba, the beloved Middle Eastern restaurant with an outpost in Lambertville that opened on Nassau Street in Princeton in 2017. Despite the long waits for a table, Marhaba shuttered unexpectedly a few months later.

The Zizaks are cautiously optimistic. They have opened several restaurants in New York City and continue to operate two of them during the changing tides of state regulations regarding indoor and outdoor dining. As takeout only, they have been able to lower expenses and remain sustainable.

With sound business acumen, the Zizaks are finding the silver linings. For example, while many restaurateurs see delays in opening as setbacks, Otto and Maria are grateful for the extra time to iron out kinks.

“The delay has been a blessing,” says Otto. “We are using the time to make sure everything is perfect.” Along with the couple’s sons, ages 15 and 17, Otto is building the restaurant’s furniture. “Now we have three additional months to build the tables and chairs,” he said in July from the farmhouse on the property. The Zizaks ultimately plan to live in the house, but for the time being are renting in Princeton.

Taking Comfort In Food

If you’re going to open a restaurant at a time when people are undergoing major anxiety about health, economic security, and social justice, let that restaurant be one that offers comfort food.

The specialty at Ottoburger, scheduled to open in September with outdoor seating and takeout only, until state regulations allow indoor dining, is a grass-fed beef burger nestled in a mound of deep-fried Hungarian dough with all the fixings. Originally from Slovakia, the Zizaks specialize in Eastern and Central European cuisine, so those fixings include beet ketchup and horseradish.

(Fear not, fellow vegans, Ottoburger will offer a beet burger with beets, black eyed peas, roots, herbs, nuts and grains, as well as a cauliflower patty with carrots, rutabaga, barley, and quinoa. Pescatarians can enjoy responsibly sourced cod with grits, and those with allergies and sensitivities will find gluten-free options.)

Don’t want your burger on a bun? You can have it prepared in a bowl on top of greens and other farm-sourced veggies. Don’t want a burger at all? There’s borscht, mushroom stew, and halušky, made with alpine spaetzle, sheep’s milk cheese, and crispy bacon bits. “Think mac ’n’ cheese,” says Otto.

Beet ketchup, horseradish, sriracha, mustard, and pickled vegetables are all made in house from farm-grown ingredients, as are the bread, dumplings, and desserts. The Zizaks will grow stinging nettle, Jerusalem artichokes, sea buckthorn, and elderberry for condiments served in the restaurant and also to sell on the side. To make the mustard, yellow and brown seeds are soaked in fresh beet juice, then ground with spices. “Beet juice gives it a beautiful color and sweet taste, so you don’t need as much salt, sugar, and vinegar,” says Maria.

Commercially prepared horseradish is too sweet and not spicy enough, the Zizaks say. They will grow the root and use it to garnish the “Slav” burger. Sauerkraut they ferment with juniper berries will be served with the grilled sausage platter. Sea buckthorn will go into a jam, and they will use elderberry to make a syrup for homemade soda.

As for the stinging nettle: “It gives umami flavor to our veggie burger,” says Maria. “It grows well in this climate. We grew up using it with scrambled eggs, in soups, and in tinctures and oils. Everybody makes a veggie burger, but a good one is put together with ingredients that give it a reason to be a burger. Stinging nettle is something you can’t immediately identify but would miss if it weren’t there.”

The Secret Is In The Dough

What makes Ottoburger Ottoburger is that dough, from a recipe passed down from Maria’s grandmother. It has been featured on the Food Network.

At the time we spoke, the Zizaks were expecting delivery of a brick oven in which to bake that dough, as well as a dozen chickens. Jon and Robin McConaughy, who operate Brick Farm Market and Brick Farm Tavern, a farm-to-table restaurant, as well as DoubleBrook Farm, are neighbors and advisors, as well as the chicken suppliers. The McConaughys are often credited with Hopewell’s rise as a dining mecca in pre-COVID times. “Jon and Robin have guided us through how to get started within the township and how to operate the farm,” says Otto. Ottoburger is sourcing grass-fed beef and heritage pork from DoubleBrook Farm.       

At 21 East Broad Street, at the corner of Seminary Avenue (the former location of The Peasant Grill, which moved further east on Hopewell’s main drag more than a year ago), Ottoburger will have an indoor seating capacity of 35 but, according to Otto, the outdoor area can accommodate up to 40 (no wonder they’ve been grateful for the extra time to make all those chairs!). “It will be an Old World diner where you can spread your elbows and feel comfortable,” he says. “If it were in New York we would squeeze 50 in there.”

The wood going into the furniture is reclaimed from an old barn on Long Island, where the family owns vacation property. Having learned carpentry as a child on his grandparents’ farm, where he built treehouses and boats, Otto is also building a coop for those chickens, whose eggs will go into the dough. And he’s rehabbed properties in New York. “It’s therapy,”
he says.

Restaurant Karma

Otto will be undergoing lots of “therapy” from the 300-year-old farmhouse that had been vacant for five years. It was originally built as a doctor’s residence, he says, and was added on to over the years. The kitchen still has the commercial stove from the Muscente family, the previous owners who operated the Merry-Go-Round restaurant in Lawrenceville from 1943 to 2001. Otto enjoys the karma of the property being continuously owned by restaurateurs.

Before moving to Princeton, the Zizaks (Otto and Maria also have a 12-year-old daughter) lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where they continue to operate Korzo Burger. In the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn they run the Brooklyn Beet Company, rated 4.5 stars on Yelp, serving “beet-centric Eastern and Central European meals and cocktails in an intimate, brick-lined space.” Herbs, heirloom tomatoes, Hungarian banana peppers, and other produce grown on a rooftop garden find their way into dill cucumbers, delicata squash soup, apple raisin potato latkes, and the Wunderwurst, a sampler of cured sausages with organic ale mustard and freshly-grated horseradish. Maria is the executive chef at all the restaurants. (Korzo Klub, a restaurant on Staten Island, closed a few years after the Zizaks opened it.)

A 2014 New Yorker review called the Brooklyn Beet Company “a restaurant run by people who care about creating an experience as interesting as it is relaxing. Did we mention the beet-ini?”

Responding To Customer Demand

Why are the Zizaks so committed to making what is, in Otto’s own words, essentially a burger joint? When they first opened their New York restaurants, with comfort food such as spaetzle, customers said they wanted a burger. The Zizaks complied and developed their signature dish. When Maria’s demo of the burger wrapped in dough and deep fried went viral on the Food Network, their path to success was on a trajectory. They describe the dish as typical street food in Hungary and Slovakia. “The outside is crispy and golden, with all the meat juices encapsulated.”

The 52-acre farm on Route 518 was purchased from D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Revolving Land Fund — it had been purchased by the Princeton-based land trust to protect it from development and resold as conserved property. The McConaughys farm organic alfalfa for their livestock on 40 acres. Otto describes the relationship as “informal.”

“Jon and Robin are helping us bring the soil back to life and transform it toward our organic and biodynamic goals,” he continues. “In exchange they grow the feed. As a part of the arrangement, we can use the alfalfa to feed any animals we will have on our farm.” Completing the circle, the alfalfa-fed beef will be used in the Ottoburger.

On the remaining land, the Zizaks will grow root vegetables, mostly beets, for all three restaurants.

Romantic Beginnings

Maria says she never set out to become a chef. As a child she spent a good amount of time in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother, cooking and baking. By age 14 she was cooking family meals and butchering meat. She and Otto grew up in the picturesque mountain city of Poprad — they describe it as having the feel of Princeton — until Otto moved to the U.S. with his family in 1990.

Arriving in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, Otto, 14, spoke only four words in English, he recounts with barely an accent. His father worked as an electrical engineer. His parents left Slovakia because they “were free spirits and felt limited after World War II.”

Otto went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the City University of New York on Staten Island, and began studies at the Graduate Center of Manhattan until the rock band he belonged to started to consume more of his time. Performing music took him to clubs and bars where “I liked it and started to supplement my livelihood by working in restaurants. I was good at it and liked the environment and wanted to pursue it.”

Back in Slovakia, Maria earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Economics in Bratislava in 1999. Her first job was overseeing the kitchen at a 200-room resort in the Tatra Mountains.

Otto returned to Slovakia for a funeral and was reunited with Maria when they were both 26. Sharing a beer, sparks went off, and soon Otto convinced Maria to join him in New York. She only expected to stay a month.

The couple started their family while Otto was fixing up a building, one that turned into their first restaurant, Korzo Haus, on the Lower East Side. It was popular and won awards (its burger was voted best in the city by the Village Voice) but with success came an increase in rent. When that proved untenable they moved the operation to Bay Ridge in 2012.

Seeking New Jersey Farmland

Growing frustrated with the New York Public Schools — the Zizak children were spread among three schools: Brooklyn Tech, Leon Goldstein High School for Science, and Park Slope Middle School — the family decided to move to Princeton. They had always liked New Jersey, making trips for ice cream to Thomas Sweet and the bent spoon.

About a year ago Otto was starting to get a sense that life in big cities is not necessarily sustainable. “If we continue living the way we do, something is going to give,” he thought before the pandemic broke. “I was thinking about the madness of the city and the global economy of cheap goods, that something’s going to crash, and started talking about getting a farm.”

The Delaware River, which reminded the Zizaks of the Danube, beckoned, and they began searching near Lambertville. They closed on the Hopewell property December 2019.

Otto says he gets a good feeling knowing that the land he purchased will be a farm forever. He bought a tractor, and says he enjoys the long days of work. (Otto and Maria take turns going in to New York to manage operations there.) “We’ve been able to bring crops to the restaurants, such as squash. Our restaurants are not huge operations, so they are the real farm-to-table that everyone talks about but doesn’t execute.”

Maria says she enjoys having her children see how farming works, how much is involved in getting vegetables on the table. Farming was integral to Maria and Otto’s upbringing. His paternal grandfather had a large beekeeping operation, and his maternal grandparents raised livestock. Maria’s family had a garden where they grew much of their food. Her father, a chemical scientist, worked in Switzerland and she would visit for skiing and hiking. “I saw small farms in the mountains and fell in love with the landscape of small-scale farming. From our bedroom window we could see cows roaming freely.”

While the Zizaks are transitioning the farm to organic, it will operate under principles of biodynamics. “Organic is certification, whereas biodynamic is more of a choice,” Otto says. “It has to do with sustainability. Organic farming doesn’t necessarily address issues such as water runoff, or how much fertilizer comes from byproducts present at the farm. We are planning to live here and bring the farm back to life. We are using organic seeds, no pesticides, using water responsibly, and making our own compost to generate a new cycle of life. Everything works together, our crops help each other. We have frogs singing every night and no mosquitoes. There are birds, foxes, groundhogs — this is a living place.”

With all that’s going on in the world right now, running a farm in Hopewell, New Jersey, “feels very safe. We are thankful we have made the right decision in today’s world.”