The paprika steeper

Mark Lastuvka came to Sacramento from the Czech Republic, and now rises early to cook goulash at La Trattoria Bohemia

Owner Mark Lastuvka holding beef goulash on the patio of La Trattoria Bohemia in East Sacramento.

Owner Mark Lastuvka holding beef goulash on the patio of La Trattoria Bohemia in East Sacramento.

Photo by scott duncan

La Trattoria Bohemia
3649 J Street

The scent of tonight’s dinner special—tandoori-spiced halibut—wafts from the kitchen. Lively conversations fill a warmly lit dining room with not an empty seat inside La Trattoria Bohemia, a Czech and Italian restaurant that opened in East Sacramento 17 years ago.

In the center of the merriment sits restaurant owner Mark Lastuvka, enjoying a glass of red wine with his girlfriend. A friendly chef, he’s passionate about the quality of food he serves his customers, whether it’s the Italian handmade ravioli, pizza and lasagna or the Czech dishes of his childhood, including beef goulash, chicken paprikash, handmade späetzle and schnitzel, which he made all the time as a kid. The Czech dumplings are his top-sellers.

Lastuvka’s place is one of a kind—the only Czech restaurant in Sacramento.

“I come every morning and I cook. Today, I did beef goulash and Bavarian goulash and soup,” Lastuvka says. “Goulash takes three hours, so you have to come in the morning and start it because it takes all day to prep. The goulash, I needed to twist it a little bit and make it for here to get people used to it, because it’s different in Czech. But now it sells very well.”

In Lastuvka’s goulash, he says, he uses precise portions of meat and vegetables, whereas in different regions of Eastern Europe, a homemade recipe would incorporate just about anything.

Lastuvka moved here from the Czech Republic in 1990. While taking English classes, he met two men who offered him a job washing dishes at Roma II Pizzeria on Folsom Boulevard. There, he met owner Maria Guerrera and learned the essentials of authentic Southern Italian cuisine over the next decade.

“She’s like my mother,” Lastuvka says. “My mom is back in Czech, so Maria became my friend and mother, and she helped a lot.”

Lastuvka was working two jobs, seven days a week, split between an early morning construction job and Roma’s on the weekends. Understandably, he started to get tired. So he decided to bring a little taste of Czech to Sacramento and open his own restaurant with a menu that includes childhood favorites in addition to the Italian staples he grew to love.

It’s not out of the ordinary for him to make a couple hundred raviolis from scratch in a few hours, a practice that he says took him years to master because he wanted to make sure his dough was the right texture and consistency every time.

“Now, I got it down to a science,” he says. “I make my own dough, but Maria showed me the essentials, and I learned from her how to make ravioli. We do everything by hand.”

Lastuvka also butchers his own meats and says he never buys precut portions. To him, this ensures that every piece that goes into his Czech or Italian recipes is up to his standards, a detail he credits to his restaurant’s longevity.

“If I don’t like it, I’m not going to serve it to you,” he says.

One of his more popular Czech dishes is the chicken paprikash, slowly cooked chicken thighs spiced with sweet Hungarian paprika and cooked in cream sauce with onions and served over späetzle, a soft egg noodle found in south German cuisine.

“I always say that I make everything with love—and I do,” Lastuvka says. “I put all my effort into it.” Ω