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Long run to end for Riccitello family in Schenectady restaurant scene

Long run to end for Riccitello family in Schenectady restaurant scene

John Riccitello's Restaurant to remain open as John's son puts neighborhood landmark up for sale
Long run to end for Riccitello family in Schenectady restaurant scene
Lewis Riccitello prepares a drink behind the bar at Riccitello’s Restaurant on Foster Avenue in Schenectady on Wednesday.
Photographer: Peter Barber

SCHENECTADY — Lewis Riccitello is blaming his wife, Donna.

"She wants to retire," said a smiling Riccitello, as he began a Wednesday night shift behind the bar at John Riccitello's Restaurant. "I don't know why she can't do it without me."

Eventually, Lew and Donna will leave the landmark Schenectady dining room. The business, located in a working class residential neighborhood on Foster Avenue, is now for sale.

Word spread earlier this week on social media that Riccitello's — opened by Lew's parent's John and Mary Riccitello in 1962 — had been listed. Berksire Hathaway HomeServices-Blake, Realtors are agents involved, and the price tag is $329,900.

Realtor Joseph R. Farry said the price includes everything — furnishings and equipment.

"We have a lot of people talking about it," Farry said. "It's been a staple in Schenectady for years, a lot of people know it."

Lew Riccitello answered a bunch of telephone calls on Wednesday, alternating conversations between pours of Chardonnay and Merlot and mixes of Bloody Marys and Rusty Nails.

"They say it takes between two and three years to sell a restaurant," Riccitello told one caller. "You come up for the summer, I'm sure we'll still be here. In 10 years I'll probably still be here."

The Riccitello family has been in the restaurant business since Joe Riccitello, Lew's uncle, opened his place on Front Street in 1926.

"It was at 344 Front," said Riccitello, 75. "If it was there today, you'd walk out the dining room and right into the parking lot of the casino."

During the early 1960s, John Riccitello decided to open his own business. John's brother (also named Lew) eventually took over Joe's Front Street operation, but bad luck and changing times were on the horizon. The American Locomotive Co. and Van Curler Hotel closed and cutbacks began at the General Electric Co. — the customer base grew smaller.

The Front Street restaurant closed during the 1970s.

John Riccitello had competition when he opened. There were five other bars on Foster Avenue at the time, some with working kitchens. Nearly 60 years later, the Riccitello business is the sole survivor.

Lewis Riccitello began work on Foster Avenue with his parents during the 1960s, even as he was working full-time at McKinley Junior High School as a physical education teacher. John Riccitello died in 1968; Lew started full-time at the restaurant in 1969.

He greets friends and customers Wednesday through Sunday. Business has been booming, especially since Rivers opened in February 2017.

"That changed everything," Riccitello said. "The condos down there, the hotels, the hotel across the bridge, that helps these people come up here, they bring their kids. They're going to a clinic at Union College for sports or something and they find our place. They find out it's a family place and they keep coming back.

"My weekend business doubled when the casino got here," Riccitello added. "Not so much the casino but everything that went with the property."

Proctors and its big-show, big-event seasons also have helped.

"I thank [Proctors CEO Philip] Morris every time he comes in here, I thank [Galesi Group CEO David] Buicko, I don't know [Metroplex Chairman Ray] Gillen that well, but if he came in, I'd thank him. They put us on the map."

The weeknight crowds are pretty good. The weekend crowds are better, packing the 56-seat dining room.

"On a big night on the weekends we can probably do comfortably, 80, 90," Riccitello said. "On the holidays, we'll do over 100."

People who visit the white, two-story building — with matching lamps on sides of the front door and spotlights on the "John Riccitello's Restaurant" sign — know what they're getting.

On Wednesday, softball-sized globes of cheddar cheese and a house-made combination of cream cheese-horseradish-sour cream-corned beef were placed on the worn, mahogany bar. Ritz crackers kept the cheese company.

The menu included favorites such as chicken parmigiana, lasagna and spaghetti with meatballs and house specials like chicken livers Riccitello-style and linguini with clams.

Riccitello is an attraction all by himself. He continues the family tradition of sharp dressing, and his celebrated wardrobe includes an assortment of fancy and colorful vests made by Donna. On Wednesday, Riccitello was in a red vest, black slacks, and white shirt with a red and black tie that showed a wine bottle dispensing pressed grape to waiting glasses.

People also look at other fixtures in the restaurant, such as the framed, lighted portraits of John and Mary, the framed newspaper reviews and feature stories — a couple highlight Lew and his vests — and the 30-year-old bookcase that stands across from the bar.

Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation," Frank Deford's "The Old Ball Game" and Fannie Flagg's "The Whole Town's Talking" all were in stock this week.

"That started with a couple guys going on vacation, coming back and talking to each other about what they read on vacation, exchanging the books," Riccitello said. "At that time we had a cigarette machine and they started putting the books on the cigarette machine and everyone would kind of recycle them.

"The next thing you know, I had more books than I knew what to do with," Riccitello added. "Another guy built a bookcase for us. Now it gets to the point where I have to take them to the [Whitney Book Corner] after a while because there are just too many of them."

There are also stories about the annual, private Super Bowl party and the names inscribed on plaques hung near the bar. 

"That's one of those centerpieces in Goose Hill," said city Historian Chris Leonard.  

Leonard lamented the loss of other longtime Schenectady food businesses and mentioned the recent closings of Garofalo's sausage store on North Center Street and Petta's restaurant on Duane Avenue.

"You can't get those places back," he said. "It's the end of an era ... it's really hard to lose that for a city like Schenectady. When you lose those, whether they're restaurants, groceries, boutique food makers, it's a loss to the community as a whole."

Benny Smith hopes he has more time at Riccitello's. He was at the bar Wednesday, sipping a bourbon on the rocks.

"You find the best bartender and the best service anywhere here," he said. "It's kind of like, you've got to come back. I've got to make my stops. I told my wife, 'I'm heading to Riccitello's because I haven't been there in a few days.' We've been out of town. I'm from the South, you don't find places like this in the South."

Smith began visiting about nine years ago.

"I became a normal client, you might say," he said. "I just loved the atmosphere, being able to come here and us tell stories. I tell him about my family and my grandkids down South, him growing a garden and all that stuff."

While Riccitello is not looking forward to full retirement, he admits the restaurant business is a near constant job.

"Who wants to get into the restaurant business, there's 70 hours a week," he said. "You don't get any weekends off."

Holidays mean work. Days off mean the same thing.

"We're closed Monday and Tuesday," Riccitello said. "I was here all day Monday making sauce."

Most of Tuesday was spent on restaurant personnel issues.

The customers, some who date to Uncle Joe's days on Front Street, are the reason Riccitello stays in the game. The 13-seat bar is almost always busy.

"I can almost tell you the people who are going to be here tonight," Riccitello said. "They all have certain nights they come. One fellow, he'll be here at 9:15, he's a night owl, he knows we close at 10. He stays until I close the door."

Riccitello doesn't know when he will close for the last time. While the building eventually will be sold, along with the restaurant parking lot two door down the street, Riccitello will not sell the family name. "Bob Smith's Restaurant" may open; John Riccitello's Restaurant will close forever.

"I'll probably work for the guy who buys it," Riccitello said. "I'll make the sauce for him, or whatever else he needs."

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