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Photo by B.A. Nilsson

In the Neighborhood
Schenectady’s small markets hark back to a time when communities sprang up organically
By B.A. Nilsson

Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven: Perreca’s. Schenectady has an ambitious revitalization project on tap that seeks to throw money at various parts of the city to see if magic beanstalks grow. Like the Jay Street pedestrian mall, Center City and the moat around Proctor’s, it probably looks good on paper. But no amount of fancy construction has created a downtown that can sustain a fine-dining restaurant. That’s because there are no people to support it.

Schenectady’s strength has long been its neighborhoods and sense of family, cultivated when the city was a one-
company town, now eroded into tiny pockets of such cohesion. One such pocket is the North Jay Street area, now targeted to become the city’s Little Italy.

In truth, it’s been that for a while, although shifting population centers have depleted the neighborhood. The Sons of Italy is headquartered nearby, but it’s the markets that really give life to the area.

Begin at a small storefront at 33 N. Jay St., easy to recognize by the many bread loaves in the window. Inside Perreca’s, if you visit early enough in the day, you’ll be drenched in the yeasty aroma of the emerging batch. Bread-making technology hasn’t changed much over the past centuries, and part of Perreca’s success is its simplicity: a couple of ingredients, hand-formed loaves and a trip through the coal-fired oven.

The oven, which is always on—always stoked—was built 80 years ago in Troy, specifically for Perreca’s, and is still running. 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. If it’s a holiday, an extra round of baking will be added, and you’ll see customers lined up outside the doorway.

The bread wrappers, T-shirts, signs and other Perreca’s paraphernalia note that the business dates from 1914, but “that’s not exactly true,” says Maria Perreca-Papa. “My grandfather actually started the store in 1913, but later he was too superstitious to say it was that year.” Perreca-Papa and her brother, Anthony, are the third generation to own and run the business.

Richard Nebolim, who works in the shop (he’s also a captain with the Schenectady Fire Department), takes me aside to quietly note the family’s generosity. “No bread goes wasted here,” he says. “At the end of the day, whatever doesn’t sell is donated where it’s needed. City Mission, Salvation Army, drug rehab centers—the family really tries to take care of people.”

Among those who know about these crusty, delicious loaves, demand is high, but Perreca’s has resisted all entreaties to expand the business, turning down lucrative supermarket offers. Here’s the part that confounds the suits in city planning: They don’t want to get bigger. Business is just fine, thanks.

This sentiment is echoed across the street by Roie Angerami, one of three sisters who own and run Civitello’s at 42 N. Jay St. Again, it was their grandfather who started the business, 82 years ago, “and we don’t want to change things. It’s good because it’s small and we can do everything by hand.” That includes making the spumoni (oh, the spumoni!) and cookies, pastries and bread.

In mid-April they’ll resume making Italian ices, and you can count on seeing a line out the door on hot summer nights. “It’s funny how things change,” says Angerami. “My grandfather had cappuccino and espresso, and that seemed to fall out of favor, so we stopped offering it. Now, with all these boutique coffee shops around, people want it again. And we have it. The real thing, too.”

Civitello’s offers sandwiches, served on its own bread. While you can get turkey or cheese, do yourself a favor and try the prosciutto or sopressata. While enjoying your lunch at one of the comfortable tables, you’ll have been studying the display case of pastries. But don’t overlook that spumoni, which you can get with the chocolate or pistachio ice cream predominating.

On a nearby street is Garofalo’s, a small, full-service market where the sausage is homemade and the meats are cut by hand. In business for more than 100 years, it’s old-fashioned enough to eschew checks and credit cards. In fact, the folks there asked me not to write about them—word of mouth is their only advertising—so I’ll say only this much and leave it to you to find the place.

Expand the geographical scope a bit and you’ll find other such shops: La Gioia Deli at 2003 Van Vranken Ave. offers homemade sausage and a selection of meats and produce, and if you head down Broadway and cross State Street, you’ll find the lonely outpost of Cappiello (510 Broadway), where the cheesemaking facility sits adjacent to the modest storefront.

Here’s a neighborhood that has changed drastically during the 82 years this store has been in business, but Mary Cappiello notes that it’s still a family operation. “My brother Julio makes the cheese, he and his children,” she says, and she’s there working the deli counter.

Mozzarella, smoked and regular in a variety of sizes, is one of the flagship offerings; you can get it with a variety of seasonings worked in, like tomato and basil, and in the extra-creamy version called scamorze. Ricotta is made in several varieties, including the pastry ricotta you put in canoli. I’m sorry to see that parmigiana-like crotonese will no longer be made: This may be your last chance to pick up a round of this deeply flavorful cheese.

Of course, there’s homemade sweet or hot Italian sausage, but you’ll also time-travel back to an era when food wasn’t all about packaging. Barrels of beans and such are at the back of the store: cannelini, chickpeas (plain or roasted), lupin and sesame seeds among them. As with all of these shops, the sense of family is so strong that you’re quickly drawn into the inner circle, an experience a supermarket never can offer. And once you’re part of the extended family, you’re part of the community as well, even though you’re only passing through. That’s an important part of what a neighborhood is about, and no amount of money can ever fabricate it. It takes generations.

 

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