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A Secret Worth Sharing

by B.A. Nilsson on February 2, 2012 · 1 comment

Peter Pause Restaurant, 535 Nott St., Schenectady, 382-9278. Serving breakfast and lunch 6-2 Mon-Fri. Cash only.

Cuisine: Italian diner

Entrée price range: $2 (single pancake) to $9 (antipasto)

Ambiance: homey

“You live in Schenectady and you don’t know Peter Pause?” asked my friend Marty. “I’ll meet you there for lunch.” That was more than 25 years ago. And I suspect that’s still how people find out about the place. They’ve never advertised.

Some form of restaurant has been at this address since 1957, but Bruno and Lucy Sacchetti have owned it the longest. They bought it in 1980 and retained the already-established name. They didn’t let their lack of restaurant experience dismay them, and clearly made the right choices along the way.

Today it’s still thriving, still packing ’em in each weekday as loyal patrons greet friends at the counter, tables and booths. When I was there with my family a few days ago, an older fellow burst in and shouted a greeting to everybody all at once, reinforcing his bonhomie with a table-by-table visit to those he knew. Which meant almost everyone.

The place gets busy. You may have to wait. We got there a little before 11, figuring we’d beat the breakfast crowd, but the place was almost full. By the time we were working on our meal, many tables had emptied. We saw the beginning of the lunch crowd arriving as we left. When you’re waiting—or when you choose to sit at the counter—you can watch Bruno working the grill. It’s a ballet between him and his assistant as patties are put to sizzle, eggs break into omelets, toast is jockeyed, bacon tended. It has the efficiency that comes only from combat training or line-cook work.

The breakfast menu is egg-intensive. One (any style) with toast is $2.25. Two: $2.90. Add meat (bacon, ham or homemade sausage) and it’s $5. Three eggs: $5.75. Ten types of two-egg omelet are offered ($5-$6.75), each with toast; add homefries for six bits. My daughter chose the tomato omelet ($5), which certainly is good of its kind, its kind being the folded-on-the-flattop variety. I like them more loose, which puts me in the minority in my family.

There’s also an array of breakfast sandwiches, including the bacon, ham or sausage McBruno ($4.50), which adds an egg and cheese in the style of the fast-food chain, but also allows real flavors to come through, especially if you have it between slices of homemade Italian bread, as I did with a satisfying Sausage McBruno. More breakfast fare: pancakes or French toast, maximum price $7 if you get a stack of three with meat. Or enjoy a quieter meal of oatmeal, cereal, bagel or other breadstuff, and pay no more than two bucks.

But you’ve got to try what they turn out for lunch. Here’s why. Bruno and Lucy start before five, she told me, in order to get the bread baking and the other prep done. She stays in the kitchen as her husband mans the grill during service. “We close at two,” she says, “but sometimes we don’t get out of here until 3:30 or 4, getting ready for the next day. On the way home, we shop, so everything’s fresh. Nothing here is frozen except the burgers, but that’s not my forte.”

She’s busy working on something like the eggplant instead, following recipes she learned from her mother. My wife had the hot eggplant sandwich, which also features rich, homemade tomato sauce, but the eggplant was astonishingly flavorful and tender with just the right amount of egg-battered crispness outside.

Soup includes pasta e fagioli ($1.75/$5.50) and a special of the day. Grilled sandwiches include egg- and cheese-based varieties, as well as the obligatory burgers. A full array of hot and cold sandwiches feature Italian deli meats, meatball, chicken, steak and the usual salads of tuna, chicken and egg ($4.25-$7.25).

I usually go for one of the Italian dishes, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. Anything with eggplant in it, of course, such as the parmigiana ($7.75). You can get spaghetti or ziti plain ($5.50) or with meatballs or sausage ($7.25); likewise cavatelli ($7/$8). I’ve been especially fond of the tortellini with broccoli ($8) over the years, and when I don’t want lunchmates plundering my plate, I order the spaghetti with anchovies ($7.25). Daily specials can include spaghetti with mushrooms ($6.50), ravioli with meatballs ($6.50) and, on Fridays, linguini with clam sauce ($6.75; with added baked TBA fish, $8.50).

Lucy and Bruno were born in Abruzzi, Italy, but met only after they’d both come to this country, as students at Draper High. After they were married, Bruno spent a few years working for GE but gave it up to give the restaurant a try. Thirty-two years later, it remains a big not-so-secret success. You taste it in the food, and you hear it in Lucy’s attitude. “You seem to have quite a range of regular customers,” I prompt, to which she answers, “They’ve been coming in for years, and then they bring their children. And we have people who work for the city, and the students across the street at Union College—but I don’t think of them as customers. They’re my family.”

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