On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Lew Riccitello was pouring a drink for a customer who’s been coming to his restaurant for so long there was no need to ask, “What’ll it be?”
Dressed in a powder blue vest and a tie to match, the 70-year-old owner of John Riccitello’s Restaurant has an air of youth about him. He was quick to flash a smile and greeted his lunch patrons by name.
As he positioned orange plastic bowls of Goldfish crackers on the gleaming wooden bar, he talked about the history of the Italian eatery, which has been in his family for more than 50 years.
Tucked into a working-class residential neighborhood on Foster Avenue, the white, two-story structure with marigolds and zinnias newly planted out front could be easily mistaken for a private residence, but it’s been a restaurant or bar since the days of Prohibition, Riccitello said.
Rummaging through a drawer behind the bar, he retrieved a laminated business card advertising a chicken supper fundraiser held there in 1934 by then-owner Joe Batten. The meals were 25 cents each.
Riccitello’s parents, John and Mary Riccitello, bought the restaurant in 1962.
The family has been in the restaurant business since the 1920s, when John’s brother, Joe, opened Joe Riccitello’s Restaurant on Front Street. The family sold the eatery in the 1970s.
“It was quite a nice restaurant. All of the professional people went there,” Riccitello recalled.
Back when Riccitello’s parents first began dishing out Italian food on Foster Avenue, the street boasted five other bars, some of which served food. The businesses were largely supported by patrons from the nearby Alco plant, which ceased production in 1969.
Now Riccitello’s is the only bar and restaurant on Foster Avenue.
Riccitello attributes his establishment’s longevity to traditional, homemade Italian fare and low prices.
The revitalization of Schenectady’s downtown has not helped his business, he noted.
“When a show is on at Proctors, we’re getting our share, so that helps our dinner hour during the week. But with more and more [restaurants] downtown, we get less and less [patrons] that come all the way out here, although we’re only five minutes from Proctors,” he said.
Many of those who dine at Riccitello’s remember the current owner when he was a teenager.
“I’ve been coming here since 1962, when Lewie’s mom and dad opened the restaurant,” said 87-year-old Anne Caschera of Glenville, from a seat at the bar. “This place is my home. . . . We come here twice a week when we’re able. We sit at the bar. Gotta see Lewie. Everybody loves Lewis.”
Her husband, Augie Caschera, recalled visiting the site before Riccitello was even born.
“I’ve been coming into this building for approximately 78 years,” the 93-year-old said. “I used to meet my dad here on a Friday. He used to stop here and cash his check. My mother used to walk me down here.”
A group from General Electric’s gas turbine division has met for lunch at the restaurant on Fridays since 1968.
Longtime customers keep the place in business, Riccitello said.
“The last person I carded was 35 years old,” he noted with a laugh.
The dark paneled walls, pendant lights and the cash register behind the bar haven’t changed since the 1960s. The menu is also frozen in time. It offers classic Italian favorites like chicken Parmesan, fettuccine alfredo, cavatelli and meatballs, and linguini with clams.
Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, Riccitello makes tomato sauce just the way his mother used to. He starts with whole tomatoes and tomato paste. For flavor, he adds spices, along with browned beef, pork and veal bones. The sauce simmers for two hours and cools for another two.
“My son would be back here and he’d say, ‘We could do this a lot faster,’ and I’d say, ‘I know, but we’re not gonna,’ ” Riccitello recounted, noting that he works at the restaurant about 70 hours each week.
A physical education major in college, Riccitello said he never thought he’d go into the restaurant business. For three years, he taught gym at the former McKinley School in Schenectady.
When his father died in 1968, he took a leave of absence to help out at the restaurant and never went back to teaching.
“I could teach you how to do a front flip or any of that stuff. My physical education skills are still there,” he said with a grin.
George Michel of Scotia has done most of the cooking at Riccitello’s, on and off, for about 40 years.
“We’ve pretty much grown old together,” Riccitello said.
“I’ve known him longer than I’ve known my wife,” Michel said with a laugh.
Michel worked in the restaurant’s small kitchen back when Riccitello’s mom was simmering pots full of pasta fagioli.
“She taught me an awful lot about Italian cooking,” he said. “She worked right up until she was 85.”
Michel still follows Mary Riccitello’s recipes and gathers ingredients from what once was her modest kitchen garden out back, where about four dozen tomato plants and a selection of herbs grow.
Mary D’Elia has been helping out in the kitchen for 31 years.
“The things they use, the garlic, the peppers, all these things make the food good,” she said, her accent hinting at a childhood spent in Italy.
Riccitello’s wife, Donna, makes all the desserts, does the interior decorating and also makes her husband’s vests — his signature wardrobe piece.
“I have hundreds of them,” he said, pulling curling photos of himself from the drawer behind the bar. In each, he’s wearing a different vest — sequined, patterned, some in solid colors. His father wore vests too.
Patrons dining at Riccitello’s on a recent Wednesday praised the restaurant’s congenial atmosphere just as highly as the food.
“It’s very friendly. You meet people you know,” said Elizabeth Waddell of Schenectady, between bites of her cold salad plate. She said she and her husband have been coming to the restaurant since the Riccitellos took over.
Ron Gilbert of Colonie, a relative newcomer to the eatery, has been frequenting Riccitello’s for three years. When asked what makes the place so special, he said, without a moment’s hesitation, “Lew. He’s such a nice guy.”