Chernobyl Pizza
By: Mike Lutz

Welcome back dear readers, it has been a bit of time since I last wrote this blog, and I have good reason, because my latest adventure has taken me to a unique location with the opportunity to combine my two passions! Most travelers will hear rumors and stories of exotic local sights and dining, I have chased many a tale to come up disappointed, but not this time friends! It’s not too often I get to combine my travel blog, Get Lost and Stay There, with my foodie blog, Not Just For Pie Hole, but what I was told was almost too fantastic to believe, too fascinating to not hop on the first mode of transportation I could find headed to the unknown wilds of Pripyat, Ukraine!

After many miles of planes, trains and pick–up trucks of indeterminable age, not to mention a few hefty bribes, I stand in from of a Soviet Era "shopping mall", which is just a gray concrete building that someone has spray painted Shopping Mall in blue on the front over the doors, I catch a sniff of something wonderful in the air through my filter mask. Pripyat is famous, or infamous, for its proximity to the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, a disaster that has impacted most of the world and drastically reshaped the local environment, during the crisis almost all the residents fled in justifiable panic as an uncontrolled nuclear meltdown blanketed the area with radioactive dust and ash.

I say 'almost all’ fled because one man saw opportunity where others saw certain death, one man had a vision where others ran in blind panic, one man felt the entrepreneurial rush where others felt the rush of fear.

I meet Yuri Vaschenko as I enter his pizza shop, yes, that's right, there is a fully functional pizza shop in the "Hot Zone" in Pripyat Ukraine! Yuri was young man when the meltdown happened and was getting ready to be evacuated when an idea struck him like a thunderbolt from the sky.

"I was hastily packing clothes and other keepsakes when it dawned on me that there will be a need that the soldiers and the radiation clean up crews will have, so I hid when the police came to "escort" us out of our apartment block" Yuri tells me through our translator.

"I had seen a television ad on a black market video cassette of a place called 'Pizza Shak" so I became obsessed with making pizza, which was no easy task back in those days" he says with a chuckle. "Finding supplies was a matter of bartering and trading, once the meltdown happened things became a bit easier."

Yuri was able to scrounge most of his ingredients from the abandoned houses and apartment blocks, he also found an abandoned cafe in the shopping mall, that for some reason still had electrical power, and he started to do major renovations to make his dream come true. After months of hard work, mostly in secrecy, Yuri opened his doors for business! At first things were slow, naturally, but Yuri was not discouraged, he figured he was going to have to take the initiative to get his product to the customers, so he started hand delivering fresh pizza to the soldiers and the radiation clean up crews in and around Pripyat. The initial product launch was met with fear and occasional violence with the local soldiers and radiation clean up crews thinking he was an irradiated mutant coming to kill them, but like all things, hunger won out in the end and Yuri was able to share his pizza with the locals.

When you enter Chernobyl Pizza it has a bit of a 'locals only’ feel to it, but that feeling fades quickly as Yuri greets each customer and makes them feel at home, there are plenty of tables and chairs as Yuri has continued to expand beyond the cafe where he got his start, mostly by breaking holes in the wall of the adjoining abandoned shops. There are a couple locals in Chernobyl Pizza when I arrive, I believe it is just before shift change and the rush hasn’t started yet.

Yuri seats me at a window table for two with a wonderful view of an old rusted out amusement park and offers me a tall glass of water, which turns out to be vodka to my surprise, I order Yuri’s favourite pizza (goat cheese, wild greens, and "beef"). Yuri tells me proudly that he is now completely 'off the grid’ because during one of his renovation projects he discovered some steam pipes running under his shop and was able to reroute them to provide heat for his pizza oven and hand built a small steam turbine to turn a generator he scrounged up. The pizza was wonderful, hot out of the oven it practically tingled when I bit into it! The flavors that Chef Yuri make for one of the best pizza experiences I have had in a long while.

My parting thoughts on Chernobyl Pizza are that its one of those hidden treasures that are coming harder and harder to find in this day and age, Yuri Vaschenko has carved out a little slice of wonderful as he chases his pizza passion! Also because Chernobyl Pizza is off grid and has almost no carbon foot print this would make it a good Eco–Tourism trip for my green traveling friends! All–in–all I give Chernobyl Pizza three thumbs up!



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