Dan Haar: Transilvania Restaurant unites old Europe, new world in East Haven

Photo of Dan Haar

EAST HAVEN -- When Alina and Constantin Caldarariu opened the Transilvania Cafe in Fairfield in 2020, bucking the pandemic, the storefront joint for Romanian and east European comfort food fulfilled a dream. 

It was also a steppingstone for the Romanian immigrants who met while working in Bermuda's hospitality industry and moved to Connecticut in 2013. All along, even as they opened the Fairfield eatery, they had their eyes on an under-used 1706 landmark building on the Farm River in East Haven, known as the Old Mill.

This year, in time for Halloween, they sold the cafe location in Fairfield and opened the 70-seat Transilvania Restaurant & Bar in the Old Mill.

Halloween? Transylvania, spelled the traditional way by the Caldararius, is the region in Romania that's famously home to Dracula. That's Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century prince who, as legend has it, drank the blood of his speared victims. He morphed into a vampire in the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker.

Images and stories of Vlad -- a national hero in Romania for fighting off invaders -- appear in the dining rooms at Transilvania. And puns, like the "bat rooms" and the phone number, (203) BITE YOU. Yes, of course, the newly opened restaurant is set to host a (sold out) Halloween party Saturday night, following a soft-opening week and grand opening celebrations last weekend that brought more than 1,000 customers.

"At 1 in the morning we were trying to get them out but they were still dancing and eating and singing," Alina said. 

The made-from-scratch food drives the show, with recipes from the Caldararius' mothers, both trained chefs, who now shuttle back and forth between Romania and Connecticut to help care for the couple's three small children. Constantin Caldarariu, known as Chris, is head chef with a staff of recent east European immigrants turning out Romanian meatballs, tripe soup, Hungarian paprikash (a savory chicken dish), "Vlad's Favorite" Romanian skinless sausages with hand-cut fries, trout with rice pilaf and more -- including, of course, stuffed cabbage with grilled thick bacon. And American burgers. 

But the draw at Transilvania Restaurant & Bar is more than food, drinks (featuring Romanian wine -- Chris was a sommelier) and a wood-paneled, historic space that seems custom-made for this purpose. It's about community, global community, at a time when that matters hugely to the part of the world Alina and Chris Caldarariu once called home. 

Among the chefs is Nina Opanasenko, who escaped from eastern Ukraine in early March after the Russian invasion this year, with her 17-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. "Russians bombed out electric system," Opanasenko, a photographer, jewelry designer and professional chef told me on a break at the restaurant. "I had no water, no heat, no electric."

After a harrowing, 6-day drive, Opanasenko and her children made it to a small town in Poland, where they stayed in an abandoned house with a hole in the roof. She connected with a host family in Guilford through Connecticut for Ukraine, a small volunteer group launched by Dana Bucin, an immigration attorney originally from Transilvania.

Bucin, the honorary Romanian consul general for Connecticut, and Alina Caldarariu, both come from towns three hours or less from the Ukraine border, towns with many Ukraine refugees. Caldarariu visited her homeland this summer for the first time in nine years. 

"Somebody helped me when I came here,"  Caldarariu said as we walked through the restaurant. "Right at that moment when they gave me the opportunity, I was thinking I want to offer that opportunity to somebody else."  

The Caldararius sponsored green cards for a chef and server, a couple who arrived from Romania just recently, and they hope to help more immigrants.  At a table overlooking the Farm River, I was talking with Bucin and Zsolt Jako, a Hungarian who was raised in Transylvania and is now a graduate student at Quinnipiac University, about a new venture set to open in Berlin, the American-Romanian Commercial Center. 

A New Haven resident, Isabella Shvartsman, originally from Ukraine, comes into the restaurant on a Friday afternoon. She speaks briefly with Opanasenko and tells Bucin, the restaurant's chief booster, that she'll return. It comes clear to me that Transilvania Restaurant is instantly part of an eastern European diaspora, with handmade clothing and crafts on the walls, much of it made by Alina's mother or other family members and friends. 

Equally clear as the bar fills for happy hour, it's an American melting pot restaurant, with photos on the walls above the working fireplace showing the Old Mill when it was, well, an old mill.  

All of this pleases the longtime building owner, Rich Civie, an engineer with an office in the building. He tells me about the history of the place as an antique store that sold candy and more recently, a coffee shop.

Transilvania's successful debut signals that Connecticut seems ready for the authentic, rustic bit of Romania the Caldararius are offering up. Fairfield did okay, especially when the pandemic was still raging. "It was good at the beginning because we did a lot of takeout," Alina said. "But after a year people wanted to dance, drink. People wanted to get out."

She tells me about the complex pressures on an immigrant entrepreneur, and about the 12 banks that rejected their bids for a loan. "I really do believe in the American dream. Not the way they picture it to you when you are small and you are watching the movies," she said. "You don’t really see the struggles in the movies."

And with that, she is off to direct the front of the house on a Friday night in an all-American town in a space that has harbored three centuries of dreams, now with a side of pickled vegetables.