Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Perreca’s: More and More

From the Food Vault Dept.: I profiled Perreca’s bakery in a 1987 issue of Capital Region magazine, at which point I’d already been convinced that they made the finest Italian loaves to be had anywhere. This opinion hasn’t changed. I was delighted to see a restaurant appear as a bakery offshoot, and reviewed it in a 2010 issue of Metroland. But one of the hazards of the one-unannounced-visit approach is that you can catch a place at a bad moment that doesn’t reflect its true nature. I tried to draw attention to a problem without being overly negative, because I found plenty to enjoy about the place. But read to the end for more.


A POSTER ON THE WALL of More Perreca’s reproduces an article about Jack Nicholson’s discovery of Perreca’s bread while he was in Albany filming “Ironweed,” and the lengths to which he’d go to keep supplied. What never got chronicled (so you’re reading it here first) is that his onetime co-star Kathleen Turner also became a big fan of the stuff.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This was when a longtime friend of mine named Christine worked as a personal assistant for Turner, and took a couple of Perreca’s loaves back to Manhattan after a visit here. From then on, as long as Christine was in her employ, she was under orders to do the same after every such excursion. I even recall a time when I put a couple of loaves on a bus to the Port Authority Terminal, where Christine retrieved them.

Perreca’s bakery has been operating for nearly a century, turning out one thing only: bread. Dense, crusty loaves of Italian bread that have defined the way this bread should break and taste. The small North Jay St. shop offers a small selection of deli-type goods, including pizza slices, and the recently added cupcakes also have been a success. So it stood to reason that, as Schenectady’s Little Italy takes shape, they should add a restaurant.

But that’s almost too intimidating a word for what’s there. It’s like an outdoor café brought inside, airy and casual and with an engagingly retro feel – and there are a couple of sidewalk tables, too.

You line up to order breakfast and lunch items, from blackboard menus that hang over the far end of the counter, requiring you to pass the cupcakes display en route. Dinner is full service.

Pancakes or French toast ($4) lead the breakfast list; add meat for $2.50. Or rein in the appetite with a $3.25 short stack. A number of egg-based dishes range from a single, any style, with potatoes ($2.50) to a frittata with potatoes and fontinella ($6.45). And there are bagels, muffins, panini and more.

Lunch includes meatloaf or Italian chicken wings ($8), eggs in purgatory, a spicy tomato-based sauce ($5.50; about which more below), coal-fired pizza for one ($8), salads and a number of sandwiches. And even macaroni and cheese ($7). Most days there’s also a special, such as Tuesday’s stuffed shells ($8) and Thursday’s roast lamb ($10), as well as an imaginative array of pizza styles.

At dinner, four personal pizzas are featured, each a generous four slices, cooked in the coal-fired bread oven. We tried the eggplant ($9), deemed a customer favorite, and enjoyed a thin-crust pie with breaded, fried eggplant rounds atop the tomato sauce and mozzarella. Margherita, sausage, and plain old cheese also are offered, in the $8-$9 range.

Baked eggplant is a weekend dinner special, along with roasted chicken and sausage and peppers ($12 each). Thursday’s specials are roasted lamb ($13) and penne with broccoli ($10, add chicken for $2). On Wednesday, it’s penne with vodka cream sauce ($10, add chicken for $2) and braciole ($13).

Ours was a Wednesday visit, but we arrived a half-hour before closing and so were unsurprised to learn that the braciole was gone. I’d gone over the who-orders-what with my family, but because my wife hates being assigned such things, she switched to the chicken purgatory ($13) with a small sense of triumph.

But we started with soup and salad. The soup ($3 / $5, but served with many entrées) was a potato-vegetable mix that sported large chunks of everything, squash and tomatoes included, in an excellent broth.

Antipasto ($9) arrived atop iceberg, which certainly stands up to the other ingredients but adds little in the flavor department – especially unnecessary this time of year when there’s so much fresh harvest around. But the toppings featured a generous amount of slices of capocollo wrapped with provolone, pickled carrots and cauliflower, pepperoncini, slivered onion, red pepper slices and tomato wedges, in oil and vinegar.

Other salads include Tuscan chicken ($8), mayo-based, with cranberries, and a chick pea and cucumber mix ($7) that my daughter ordered, a dish where something other than iceberg would have been very welcome.

The biggest surprise was in my wife’s chicken dish – or wasn’t in it. It lacked chicken. It arrived in a large, appetizing-looking bowl, with a spicy, vegetable-enhanced tomato sauce over penne. But not a bit of chicken to be found.

No servers either, at that point. There seems to come a time in many restaurants when the floor staff, having presented the last of the entrées, hangs out elsewhere, or zips by too fast to beckon. Fortunately, Susan was able to track down one of the cooks and persuade him that the chicken would be a worthy addition.

We finished the meal amidst the cleanup bustle, and thus felt it prudent not to linger. A sturdy pile of leftovers went home with us, including what was left of the signature bread, served at the start of the meal – and it vanished before bedtime.

More Perreca’s is a terrific addition to the neighborhood, and I’m eager to try breakfast and lunch. I’d like to see a more conscientious cooking and floor staff, because even casual dining should be a serious business.

Metroland Magazine, 9 September 2010

I took the opportunity to revisit More Perreca’s two years later, after a new chef was hired and the menu somewhat changed. It was a pleasure to lavish deserved praise, and the restaurant continues to thrive.


FOR A LONG TIME, it didn’t seem as if there could be any less Perreca’s. This North Jay Street fixture – it opened in 1913 – baked bread in a coal-fired oven and sold those loaves in its little storefront and in shops lucky enough to persuade the bakery to share its wares.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
From a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago: “How much bread is baked in a day? There’s no firm number. Weather conditions figure into it, also the day of the week; a diary contains records of sales and weather conditions for the past several decades, and this, too is consulted.”

This was around the time when Schenectady designated the Perreca’s neighborhood as Little Italy, “little” being the operative word. Perreca’s by this time was offering takeaway sandwiches and pizza and a variety of Italian deli items. It seemed natural, a few years ago, to expand into an adjacent building and offer sit-down dining. 

When I reviewed it, not long after it opened, I enjoyed the food and ambiance but was disappointed by indifferent servers and a kitchen mistake. Much has changed since then, and I’m pleased to report that More Perreca’s now truly sports the feel of a good neighborhood Italian eatery.

One of the biggest changes is a new chef, Kelly Donnelly, who comes from Wheatfields in Clifton Park and who trained at Schenectady County Community College – but only after she’d already put in several years in other area restaurant kitchens..

She contributes both a flair for the cookery already associated with More Perreca’s and some new directions. But you’re not leaving the world of classic Italian cooking.

Maria Papa and her brother Anthony are the current generation of Perreca’s owners, and she describes the restaurant’s first iteration as “very grandma’s-kitchen oriented, with the recipes coming from Grandma Perreca.” Bringing in a new, young chef was “a move into new territory for us,” says Papa. “I represent the Italian grandma, while Kelly is more adventurous and can attract a hipper, younger crowd.”

She’s responsible for the striking flavor of the entrée I ordered, shrimp and calamari fra diavolo ($18). The seafood itself was tender, with a couple of large whole shrimp a kind of bonus among the more navigable chopped shrimp, and the sauce had a sharper bite than I’ve (unfortunately) come to expect – another good sign. And the spiciness is set off with a citrus-based sweetness, all of which complemented the large portion of penne over which it’s served.

Another part of the new transition has been staff training. The transformation since my last review is impressive, characterized by what I would have expected the last time: a sense, when you dine here, that you’re part of the family.

The buildings – conjoined eatery and bakery – would be at home on Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, where they’d have the welcome support of dozens of similarly themed establishments. Here they have to work that much harder – along with nearby fine-dining restaurant Cornell’s and light fare-and-dessert-oriented Civitello’s – to maintain a neighborhood identity.

Inside, the dining area splits between a room of tables and an aisle of booths. From the tables you can watch the chef at work; the booths are near the takeout counter. The walls sport large photos of Perreca’s long history.

A long-standing emphasis is affordability, which the new menu maintains. Starters include triple tomato bruschetta ($8), PEI mussels ($9), fried locally made smoked mozzarella sticks ($7) and garlic-parmesan chicken wings ($7). But I chose a serving of garlic bread ($5), featuring several redolent slices from a Perreca’s loaf.

Given the choice between a Caesar salad ($5) and a fresh market salad ($4), our server recommended the latter for its variety, and it had a tasty balance of ingredients, cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and croutons among them.

Regular-menu entrées include penne with locally made sausage, tomatoes and escarole in a lemon-butter sauce ($16), filet of sole ($17), lasagna ($14) and a Delmonico steak ($20). You can get spaghetti and meatballs for $14, creamy chicken and broccoli Alfredo for $13, chicken parmigiana with spaghetti for $14 and even macaroni and cheese for $12.

The real star of the show may be the pizza, however. A personal-sized (four-slice) pie is $10, and it’s cooked right on the brick of the coal-fired oven next door. Choose any or all of over a dozen toppings – it doesn’t change the price.

My friend Malcolm, initially worried that the pizza would be too large, was delighted with the size, and, as he tucked into the thing, enjoyed it more and more – particularly the caramelized onions that fluttered among his toppings array. “I’m not going to be able to finish this,” he said, which proved to be a bad prediction.

As the hours suggest, it’s also a place for breakfast and lunch, with a casual demarcation of the hours for each. For breakfast, look for egg dishes (eggs in purgatory in a spicy tomato-based sauce, are a favorite), pancakes, French toast, muffins, bagels and more. Lunch includes sandwiches and a number of prepared items like meatloaf and pasta dishes.

“We’re never going to be Cornell’s,” says Papa, “but that’s not who we are. We’ve got our own niche we’re trying to fill, something between a diner and a fancy Italian restaurant.”

It turns out to be a very good niche.

More Perreca’s, 31 North Jay St., Schenectady, 377-9800, Serving daily 7 AM-8 PM.

Metroland Magazine, 4 October 2012

No comments: