Photos by Richard Lovrich
“When I was sixteen, seventeen years old, that was the disco era,” Maria Papa says, “and I would go out with my friends and then invite everybody over to my parents’ house at 3 AM, and I’d start cooking. I would make the sauce from scratch, and serve a three-course Italian meal – it was 4 AM by the time I finished cooking everything – so the rest of my family would wake up on a Sunday morning to all these people, and all this food, around the table.”
Her parents were running Perreca’s Bakery, Schenectady’s legendary bread source, and she grew up learning to cook classic Italian dishes in the classic Italian way: from her grandmother. “I grew up living in the apartment above the bakery, and I was brought up by her because my mother was always working at the bakery.”
The bakery was started over a century ago by Salvatore Perreca, newly arrived from Naples. The recipe, which is no more than flour, water, salt, and yeast, hasn’t changed since then. The result is a crusty loaf that speaks of the coal-fired oven in which it’s baked, so addictive that I helped smuggle loaves to Kathleen Turner.
The business passed from Salvatore to his daughter, Lilia, and her husband Dominick Papa, who met his wife-to-be when buying bread one day. And now their daughter Maria is at the helm, keeping it as it’s always been. “We don’t want to be anything that we’re not, so we’ve kept the philosophy of Perreca’s Bakery,” she explains, “being authentic, old fashioned – food that you would get at your grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, I bill myself as everybody’s Italian grandmother. Whether you’re Italian or not.”
But she made one significant change: In 2009 she opened More Perreca’s, a full-service restaurant, next door to the bakery. It was the culmination of a journey that began with a different ambition in a very different place.
“I went to Mount Holyoke College,” she says, “and after I graduated I wanted to work in publishing. I got a job with Random House in Manhattan, where I started as a publicity assistant. I was spending half my salary on rent, and living with five roommates in Hell’s Kitchen. Nowadays it’s beautiful there, but back then you had to walk in the middle of the street to keep away from the rats.
“But I loved my job. Every celebrity eventually writes a book, so these people were in and out of our offices. Katharine Hepburn wrote a book for us, and lived right around the corner, so as I worked on her book, I’d go knock on her door and have tea and cookies with her. Lauren Bacall also wrote her book back then, and worked on it right in our offices. But the highlight of my publishing career was my work on a Civil War book by James MacPherson titled Battle Cry of Freedom.
“When it was published in hardcover, it did all right but didn’t become a blockbuster bestseller, which it really deserved. I got the author when we were publishing him in paperback, which is a book’s second chance. This one was so readable and so thoroughly researched that I wanted to do everything I could to promote it. I got the author on the ‘Today Show,’ which sells books – or did in those days – and he went on to get the Pulitzer Prize for it. I don’t take credit for that, but I can take credit for getting that very worthy book to a larger audience.”
Then a simple tick of the biological clock prompted her to change her life. “I was in my thirties and wanted to have a baby, and decided I didn’t want to do it in New York City. It would be too expensive, and I wanted my family around me. So in a blink of an eye I decided to move back home and be part of Perreca’s Bakery. And I’ve never regretted it.”
More Perreca’s was created in a building that adjoined the bakery. “It was ramshackle and all boarded up. You stop seeing these boarded-up buildings after a while, but one day, as I was walking by it, I saw it, next to my beloved bakery, and I saw what it could be. So I bought the building. But even when I started the renovation I had no idea what was going to go on the ground floor. It was only when we were about three-quarters of the way into the job that I committed to the vision of a restaurant.”
It opened in 2009 and went through a few transitions before settling into its current style, which she credits to her partnership with Jerry Menagias. “He had Stone Ends back in the day with Dale Miller, he had Lucia’s on Route 50, and he worked for the Mallozzi’s for over ten years. Thirty-five years ago I worked as waitress for Jerry in the summer between high school and college, and we’ve known each other ever since. I decided I wanted him here, and I didn’t stop until I got him. He’s been with us for three years now as executive chef and kitchen manager, and he’s really stabilized us.”
The menu features many pasta dishes, which you’ll find in combination with clams or sausage or meatballs, as well as the shrimp-studded Pasta alla Lucia and the anchovy-rich angel-hair-based Pasta alla Maria. Seafood selections include scrod baked with diced tomatoes and shrimp or calamari alla marinara or fra diavolo. A bounty of chicken-, veal-, and eggplant-based dishes come in all your favorite styles, with chicken carbonara a specialty – and there’s pizza from the wood-fired oven.
“Jerry and I developed the dinner menu together. We just huddled to make up a Mother’s Day menu, and we’re so good at this together that it took us ten minutes to do it. And it’s fantastic. It’s the menu for somewhere I would want to eat.”
Any plans she has for the future will stay in the neighborhood. “I’m very committed to Schenectady’s Little Italy. You see everybody going to Troy these days, but I’m really devoted to our street, so if I do anything it’ll be another Italian concept restaurant here.
“We try to stay true to our roots. We still do everything by hand. We haven’t changed anything in that bakery. We’ve stayed small. Our meatballs are probably the best on the planet, and the same for our marinara sauce. And, of course, our bread. Those are the staples.”
Note from the author: