Maria Perreca Papa, Keeping the Family Traditions Alive
From earning her MBA, to tending to a menagerie of rescue dogs, to going to Divinity School, it seems Maria Perreca Papa can do it all. P.S. She makes a mean cupcake too.
How hard could it be? Spend some time in Maria Perreca Papa’s realm, and you’ll quickly feel her can-do vibe. Whether earning her MBA from NYU while working full-time at Random House in the 1990s, breathing new life into a nearly condemned building or tending a menagerie of rescue dogs (along with her talkative 35-year-old cockatoo), nothing seems to faze Maria. Next on her list? Divinity school. “I’m fascinated with religion and want to understand what drives people on a spiritual level.”
After more than a decade in Manhattan living in Hell’s Kitchen before gentrification, Maria decided to move back home to Schenectady in 1997. “I wanted to start a family and work in the bakery again. People remember me when I was 10 standing on a crate to reach the register and making change.” Perreca’s Bakery, on Jay Street in Little Italy, was established in 1914 by her grandparents, Salvatore and Carmella Perreca. The coal-fired oven has been running steadily ever since, producing the same crusty loaves that Salvatore had made.
“My brother, Tony, and his bakers bake the bread all night, six nights a week, and I run the retail storefront of Perreca’s Bakery. I also own and manage More Perreca’s Italian Kitchen and Catering next door. We each respect the other’s role in this family business. Of course I take credit every waking moment, but Tony has worked in the bakery since high school and learned to bake under our father, Dominick. We choose to stick with the classics and keep things simple but excellent. Everything has to be better than good to uphold our standards.” Dishes are authentic grandmother food because that’s who taught Maria to cook.
Maria and her son, Kipling, a sophomore at University of Southern California, live in an 1830 brownstone in the Stockade section of downtown Schenectady, New York State’s first historic district. There’s a formal dining room and elegant parlor, a cozy library and a sunlit atrium filled with art. Wander into the lush backyard, complete with a terrace and a pool, and you’ll forget you’re in the heart of downtown. “We take stewardship of our old home seriously,” she notes.
But the home clearly revolves around the kitchen with its smooth brick floor, Vermont Castings woodstove, plenty of counter space and her beloved vintage appliances from the 1960s: General Electric double oven, Magic Chef stove top gas range and another electric stove for overflow. “I like long-term relationships—trees, cars, animals, appliances. I can’t fathom having a puppy, a new car or a modern home. When my appliances break, I call the repair guy. If he shakes his head and tells me to get rid of the stove, I find a new repair guy!”
Four books are propped, shrine-like, on an antique oak cabinet in her kitchen. The Bible, The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. “They’re everything that’s important to me: food and religion.”
“Kipling and I eat well,” Maria continues. “We always sit down to eat, and he never fails to thank me for the meal. How cool is that? I give him credit—he’s become very conscious of his diet. We have a significant Muslim population here in Schenectady, and our local PriceRite has a lot of halal meats and chicken. Meat has to be organic to be designated halal. I also scour Price Chopper for organic foods. I feel strongly about voting with my dollars and shopping locally. This is where I make my livelihood and want to support my neighbors.”
So how did More Perreca’s come to be? Attached to the century-old bakery was a decrepit building that had been boarded up for more than 20 years. Maria bought the structure to protect the bakery and then set to work shoring it up.
“We started demolition on the interior in February 2009. I appointed myself general contractor. How hard could this be, right? Kipling and I were there in our work gloves, tearing off the aluminum siding and ripping out the interior. I came home blackened and exhausted and nearly in tears. Okay, often in tears. I found a handyman contractor, and we figured it out together. In retrospect, that building should have been condemned. But we saved the building and gave it new life.” The restaurant opened for business 10 months later, November 19, 2009, to serve three meals a day, seven days a week.
Maria learned to cook at the hip of Grandma Perreca who never wrote things down and cooked by instinct. “Grandma lived in the apartment above the bakery and I would spend so much time with her, while my mother worked in the store downstairs.”
Like Grandma, Maria cooks wearing her signature mappine, a white cotton flour sack towel, which she folds and wraps deftly around her head. Maria pulls out a stack of freshly laundered mappines, pats them lovingly and lapses into a tale. “It was Easter season, and I was working in the tiny kitchen in back of the Bakery making zuppa di pesce. I was up to my elbows in raw fish. A young gentleman came by with a stack of these towels. He was cleaning out his mother’s house—she had just died—and he wanted me to have these. He gave me about 20 years of mappines! He then spent the day cooking with me and shared his entire life story. But he never showed up again. Maybe he was an angel??”
Maria spends her days running in between the bakery and the restaurant. Literally. A door joins the two establishments. In the evenings, when the bakery is closed, the kitchen staff at the restaurant bakes pizzas in the coal oven which is still hot but not in use till the early morning hours. Maria misses being a regular clerk at the shop, though. “I saw my customers every day. These are people who make a deliberate stop for a loaf of fresh bread. God bless them! You get attached to these people, you know? We have a loyal clientele, and I gain a lot of wisdom from them. I never get tired of listening and talking with them.”
In addition to breads and pastries, Perreca’s has grown famous for their half-pound cupcakes. Scratch-made, with a tender crumb and melt-in-your-mouth butter cream frosting, they embody perfection in four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, espresso and carrot. “If you’re gonna eat a cupcake, eat one of ours,” Maria urges.
Holiday meals in the Perreca Papa households? “We always have Italian chicken and herbed roasted potatoes, eggplant, macaroni, sausage and peppers, a turkey at Thanksgiving. And of course, bread bread bread! It’s the best way to mop up the eggs in purgatory sauce! We always have the big holiday meals at my mother’s house. She’s 92 now and still cooks. She just loves to see her family around her table.”
Maria circles back to her dream of attending divinity school. “I just love people so much and want to understand what drives them on a spiritual level. I tell my cooks they’re doing God’s work, feeding people’s souls. I only hire happy people, because food is sacred and their spirit infuses the food they prepare.”