Celebrate Perreca’s 100th Anniversary
WHAT: A block party featuring live music by The Refrigerators, food and dancing
WHEN: Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
WHERE: 31 N. Jay St. and Warren St., Schenectady
On a Friday morning, the coal-fired brick oven rests. It still radiates heat — it can never truly rest — but this is its downtime after a night spent baking loaves of bread.
Round and long loaves. Golden loaves and dark brown loaves. The darkest loaves come from nearest the oven walls. All come with a thick crust.
In the bakery proper at Perreca’s Bakery, the oven is a small rectangular slit in a white brick wall that’s caked in a century’s worth of soot. Maria Perreca Papa opens the iron door, grabs a tin lamp that’s hanging nearby and shines it in, revealing a deep, dark chamber of black, black, black that stretches 18 feet back.
It’s still warm from the night’s work. In fact, it never gets cold. If it does, like one time nearly 30 years ago, the bricks will crack and Maria’s brother Tony will have to crawl in the slit on his back and replace them. Even when it’s cold, it’s pretty warm.
“He was a young, fearless guy, back in his early 20s,” Maria recalled.
So it never gets cold. It’s hottest in the middle of the night, when the rest of the neighborhood is asleep and a team of bakers shove long wooden peels loaded with flour-dusted dough into the slit so loyal customers can have a fresh loaf in the morning. They can’t keep track of the loaves, so they count each 50-pound bag of flour as they go. Friday night, the night before Perreca’s hosts a 100th anniversary bash on North Jay Street, they will go through 600 pounds of flour.
In 100 years, not much has changed in the bakery proper. The oven is still there, still running on coal. The mixer Salvatore Perreca bought used in 1921 is still there. The sheeter, bought in 1921, is still there. The wood floor, covered in layers of chalky gray and white soot, is still there.
A large trough, designed to hold rising loaves and logs, was replaced. A long bench was replaced. Proofing boxes lined with canvas rags were replaced. The peels are made of wood and so they inevitably were replaced.
The things that really matter to Perreca’s Bakery customers have not changed, though. The bread is the same as it was a century ago, laboriously but lovingly handcrafted by the Perreca family using an unscientific mixture of flour, water, salt and yeast.
“This is it,” Maria said, shrugging her shoulders and lifting outspread arms toward the bakery that’s stood in the same spot on North Jay Street, the mainstay of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, since 1914. “For 100 years, I mean, this has been it.”
Curiously, the sign on the door boasts “Perreca’s Bakery since 1913” in cursive script. And it’s true. Perreca’s Bakery has been around since 1913.
Salvatore Perreca and his brothers arrived in Schenectady from Naples and decided to open their own individual bakeries selling Napolitan bread around the city. The brothers — Felice and Vincent — opened bakeries on John Street in 1913. Salvatore and his wife, Carmella, opened their own bakery at 33 N. Jay St. a year later. Their bed once occupied a tiny pantry on the first floor.
“Especially back then, you didn’t hire people to work in your bakery,” Maria said. “It was all family. And if you didn’t have family that was willing to work all night, well that’s kind of tough.”
It’s unclear just when the other Perreca’s bakeries closed, but Maria has her own theory as to why her grandparents’ bakery was the one to survive and thrive.
“I give all the credit to my mother, believe it or not,” she said.
Lilia Perreca dropped out of school to help her parents run the bakery. She married a bakery regular and a mason by trade, Dominick Papa, who left his masonry job to help her run the business after Salvatore had grown old and tired. They had two children: Maria and Tony, who today co-own the still-thriving Schenectady landmark.
And at 89, Lilia is still involved in the bakery.
“She still works here,” Maria said, her voice a mixture of pride, shock and an ever-present joviality. “She’s remained the constant since she could walk. She was born upstairs and never left. She still comes to work every day, even on Saturdays.”
The family never really thought twice about the “since 1913” claim on the front door.
“I’ve always been like, ‘Oh, who cares, you know? What does it matter?’ But now that we’re at our centennial, it does,” she says. “It does matter. It’s nice to know.”
As other family-run bakeries have gone out of business, the Perreca Papa family has been careful to build its reputation on more than just a renowned loaf of bread. In fact, the family hasn’t always understood the fuss, which went into overdrive after Schenectady learned Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep had fallen for the bread while filming “Ironwood” in Albany in 1987.
It’s why people have stopped Maria during stays in Hawaii and Holland, always while she’s wearing a Perreca’s shirt, to tell her they’ve heard of her bakery.
Robert Papa, Dominick’s brother and Maria’s uncle, once described the bread as “plain old peasant bread.” That is, perhaps, its appeal. It’s a tasty relic of a simpler time: dinner at Grandma’s house.
Today, Perreca’s is more than just bread and tomato pie (the tomato pie gets less attention, but is arguably just as beloved). Today, it’s paninis, cupcakes, cookies and deli meats, as well.
“We make other things because we had no choice,” Maria said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, this is so much fun, let’s make cupcakes now.’ We really had no choice. People don’t eat bread around the dining room table every night as a family, you know? They don’t meet around the dining room table every night as a family, let alone have a big old loaf of Perreca’s bread in the middle. It just doesn’t happen. It’s changing times.”
That’s why their most memorable customers are the older ones.
“They’re the old-timers,” she said. “We see the same people make a dedicated stop on their errand routes every day, just for a loaf of bread. Now that’s dedication.”
To show the world (or at least Schenectady) the family is about more than just bread, Maria opened a restaurant five years ago in a vacant, 4,400-square-foot building next door, calling it, fittingly, More Perreca’s. The food is simple and delicious, like the kind you’d find in any old Italian grandmother’s kitchen, she says.
The little trattoria is not for foodies in search of the next trendy restaurant. It’s most popular among neighborhood folks who like the comfort of a home-cooked meal.
“What we wanted was a place where people could go experience grandma food,” Maria said. “We’re not Cornell’s. We were never meant to compete with Cornell’s or with white tablecloth restaurants because we’re not that. We’re the Perreca’s Bakery of restaurants. We’re not a fancy bakery, and we’re not a fancy restaurant. But we’re really, really, really good food.”
On Friday morning, a customer points toward the shelves of bread in the bakery’s front window.
“That one,” she said, her eyes honing in on a single loaf. “The dark one.”
The dark ones, with the brown — almost black — crusts, are baked near the walls of the oven. They’re a customer favorite.
The bakery’s original wood floors creak beneath her feet. That sound is also a customer favorite, Maria says.
On the wall behind the counter, frames hold newspaper cutouts and black-and-white portraits of Dominick, Lilia, Carmella and Salvatore donning his newsboy cap. The door opens, and a gust of air does little to dilute the perfume of yeasty dough and spicy sausages and pepperonis.
Maria becomes overwhelmed with gratitude when she thinks of the 100-year landmark. She’s going all out to celebrate. She had signs made a few months ago noting the centennial achievement. They hang on lampposts outside the bakery. She emailed The Refrigerators, a popular band in the Northeast that draws thousands to its shows. Band members told her they would be honored to play at Perreca’s 100th anniversary block party, which runs today from 5 to 9 p.m. on nearby Warren Street.
“I think of the bones that are here and the ghosts,” she said. “I think of all the hard work that my ancestors did, and I just well up with gratitude. I mean, it sounds hokey, but gratitude is everything. Gratitude is success.”
On a recent Easter, Tony’s son, Anthony Perreca Papa, helped his aunt make hundreds of pies stuffed with ham, ricotta and rice. The recent high school graduate has been a prep cook at More Perreca’s for some time, making sauces and stocks and meatballs. The pies aren’t his specialty, but they’re popular, so they need to fly into the oven and fly out to be fresh and ready for the customers who line up each Easter.
“Anthony and I are at ground zero,” Maria recalls. “We’re putting pies in, we’re taking them out, we’re putting them in, and I’m so tired, my arms are barely working anymore, and we’re both just slaving at this oven. And I said, ‘Anthony, I cannot wait to pass this baton along.’ And he said, ‘Aunt Mimi, I’m ready.’ ”
She was so happy she could cry.