Retired pizza maker gets back in the kitchen at Schenectady City Mission

Riggi helps others help themselves through culinary work
City Mission of Schenectady volunteer Jerry Riggi Jr. checks the crust of a baking pizza in the Mission's kitchen Thursday.
City Mission of Schenectady volunteer Jerry Riggi Jr. checks the crust of a baking pizza in the Mission's kitchen Thursday.

SCHENECTADY — Decades after a Van Vranken Avenue pizzeria shut down, the joint’s owner is working his craft once again.

Jerry Riggi Jr., who’ll turn 83 next week, is helping younger pizza makers learn how to make a good pie.

Thursday is pizza day at the City Mission dining center on Smith Street. Last week, the ovens were throwing off a lot of heat as one pan after another went in to bake on a cool, wet morning.

Working at the Mission takes Riggi back to the old Riggi’s Pizza.

“Love it,” he said. “These people in here are the greatest.”

Pizza day has proved popular, but there’s a greater purpose to it than lunch.

The people learning to make pizza are City Mission clients completing the process of putting their lives back together, and either learning a job skill or just giving back to what has become their family.

“To have a man with that kind of talent and passion come down and teach our folks how to do this? It’s a win-win,” said Mike Saccocio, president and CEO of the Mission.

About 30 of the Mission’s 100-member staff are former clients. They’re assisted by current clients in volunteer roles.

“When a man or a woman comes in off the street, I want them to meet men and women who have been there, been in the shelters but now have a new story of hope,” Saccocio said.

The seemingly unlikely connection between a retired pizza maker living in Glenville and the City Mission kitchen was made by Gary Riggi — Jerry’s son and the director of engagement services at the Mission.

The original pizzeria did not have a huge lifespan — Jerry and Catherine Riggi opened it while their three kids were in school and closed it once the youngest was out of college. They were just tired of the hours they were putting in. A friend ran it briefly afterward; when the place closed for good in the early 1990s, Gary snagged some of the equipment from the kitchen.

“I always wanted to open a pizza place and have my kids do it when I looked at retirement. My kids didn’t want to do it, so it was sitting in my garage,” Gary said.

“Once we got the oven set up, I knew how much my father loved the pizza place, so I started bringing my dad in and it just gave him new life. He got to meet all the people here, everybody loves him, and it’s just given my father a lot of new energy.”

On Wednesdays, Jerry — known to one and all as “Poppy” — helps make the dough. On Thursdays, the staff cuts up the dough and rolls it out to make four dozen pizza pies in two three-bay ovens.

“What a blessing to be able to spend time with him doing this,” said Gary, an ordained deacon.

“This is the same sauce as we made in the pizza place,” Jerry said. “Gary works a lot of time here, and he’s the one that makes all the sauce now. It was our old recipe.”

The Daily Gazette taste-tested the pizza. Thumbs up — thick crust, bright-flavored sauce, less salty than the average pizza. We also requested the sauce recipe, strictly for journalistic purposes.

“I can’t give you that!” Jerry said.

He allowed there’s some basil, oregano and garlic powder in it.

Other thoughts:

His favorite place to go for pizza: his own kitchen — he still makes his own.

The most important thing to teach an aspiring pizza maker: consistency.

The best pizza he ever made: an old-school Italian-style pie. 

“One time we made it like my mother used to make it. No mozzarella — it was all fresh squeezed tomatoes and we topped it with grated cheese. That’s the way the Italians did it in the old days.”

One of the Mission’s pizza makers is John Lobdell. He said he’s learned a lot from Riggi, but was starting from a higher baseline from most, having cooked professionally in the past. The Ballston Spa native spent years in construction and cooking jobs, then reached a turning point five years ago: A serious back injury on a construction site.

Presciption pain medication led to an opiate addiction.

“It made my life unmanageable, and I came to the Mission for help. Because I lost everything,” Lobdell said. “So I came to the mission and met Gary Riggi, he’s been my mentor the whole time I’ve been here.”

Lobdell has since completed the Mission’s Bridge to Freedom recovery program, had a plate and two artificial discs implanted in his back, and has moved out of the Mission and into its transitional housing. His career plans are with the Mission.

“I’m going to stay right here, God willing. If I’m able to work here and they want me to work here, this is where I’m going to be. I love helping people.”

Brooklyn native Freddie Vazquez, a longtime Schenectady resident and now Mission resident, said he’s at a point in his life — 60 years old and drawing Social Security disability — where he can’t start a culinary career. But he does like to do volunteer work at the Mission, and the kitchen is a favorite place to do it.

“I help John, I’ve worked with Poppy, I’m in awe of the way the pizza’s made,” he said. “To see it made from scratch, the dough, is pretty amazing.”

When he’s done, Vazquez likes to sit down and eat what he helped make. Pepperoni preferred, ideally with double cheese.

“It’s real pizza, like you’d buy at a pizzeria, instead of knowing it’s a homeless shelter. You wouldn’t expect that kind of taste, but with Poppy it’s amazing.”

This idea of non-institutional food is important to the City Mission, Saccocio said.

The dining hall was built with aesthetics as much as functionality in mind, and the food there is cooked and served in the same way.

“People appreciate first of all that it tastes good, but also that a place like the Mission is innovating in that we’re trying to come up with new ways to serve people better,” he said.

“One of our themes here is that the poor need beauty as much as they need food. We’re all people —we’re not just physical appetites.”

The Mission serves about 700 meals a day on average. 

Saccocio said involvement in the cooking and serving can be an important part of a rebuilding process for some clients. For others, it is not — there is no single magic formula for success, Saccocio said, and not everyone succeeds on the first attempt.

He believes one of the institutional strengths of the Mission is that it doesn’t give up if that first attempt fails.

“We’ll keep a light in the window for you,” he said.

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