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A Good Niche

by B.A. Nilsson on October 4, 2012

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

Cuisine: Italian

Entrée price range: $10 (personal pizza) to $20 (Delmonico steak)

Ambiance: old-world casual

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.

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 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.