Italian culture: Alive and well in Schenectady

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By Enza Macherone

Not even the impending storm could keep the crowds away from the Seventh Annual Little Italy Street Fest. The festival, held on September 8 on No. Jay Street was the scene of much delight and excitement for all the five senses. Walking the few blocks from Union to Jay Street I was hit with the most incredible smell; it was as if I was walking straight into my grandmother’s kitchen. Being Italian and having my whole family live in Schenectady made the festival very sentimental to me. With each step I took farther down the street I recalled wonderful memories of time spent with my family.

Vendors, selling everything from hand-painted wine glasses to home-made jewelry and of course, food, lined the street. People from all over the Schenectady area spent countless hours preparing to bring a little taste of the home country to the eager festival-goers.

Thankfully admission to the Street Fest was free, and for a cash-strapped college student that meant I could spend my money on what was most important- the delicious food. Sausage and peppers, ziti, meatballs, london broil and traditional Italian pastries were just some of the tantalizing offerings. Although I would have been overjoyed to have eaten any of the food being served, I was dying from the humidity and wanted to be able to sit down and enjoy my food.

With the company of my mom and boyfriend’s mom, I quickly decided where I wanted to stuff my face. Perreca’s Bakery has been a cornerstone of the Italian community for more than 75 years. Every since I can remember, I have been a glutton for their warm Italian bread and saucy pizza.

Recently opened in the past two years, Perreca’s added on a sit-down restaurant to their already bustling deli and bakery. Walking in, the first thing I noticed was the accordion player serenading guests as they enjoyed their meals. The restaurant was on the smaller side which added to its charm and cozy atmosphere. Sitting down at a booth and looking at the menu I knew deciding what to eat would be no easy task. From traditional pizzas to eggplant parmesan, paninis to anitpasto salad, this place had anything a lover of true Italian cooking could want, and it even satisfied a college-student’s budget.

After about 15 minutes I finally decided I would have a coal-fired personal pizza, complete with anchovies. It was the best decision I could have made. The pizza arrived on the table steaming hot and covered in bubbling cheese. With an Italian soda to wash it all down, my taste buds were in heaven.

After finishing my meal, I wanted to learn more about Perreca’s so I ventured over to the other side of the building. This little deli/ bakery is too unique for words. The smell is one of my favorites- a mixture of fresh-baked bread, cheeses, deli meats and warm pizza filled the air. The floor boards creaked under foot from decades of customers filing in to experience what can only be described as the true essence of Italian culture. I was fortunate to speak to Lillian, the 87-year old daughter of Salvatore and Carmela Perreca, the store’s founders. When I asked her what the Italian culture of Schenectady was like back when the store was first opened in 1925, she took a moment to reminisce before saying, “Jay Street was completely Italian. Not a word of English was spoken and everyone got along.” She went on to explain how she was raised in the bakery, delivering bread to her neighbors on a daily basis.

Lillian’s story is quite common to her generation, with most children of Italian working families helping out in the family business. My father, born in 1944, had many friends who grew up knowing the value of work. They baked in their family’s bakery and delivered milk throughout the neighborhoods. After imagining what a wonderful, community-based place Schenectady and the Little Italy area had been, I was once again hungry and walked over to Civitello’s, a bakery specializing in Italian pastries. The line was out the door as bunches of people shuffled in to order cookies, pieces of cakes and of course, canolis. The cases were lined with date and fig cookies, pistachio cookies, sfogliatelle (clamshell shaped pastries), sugar-covered almonds and biscotti. Again, the decisions seemed endless but I finally decided on two sfogliatelle. These little delights feaure a creamy center, similar to a hard canoli filling, and are wrapped in layer-upon-layer of flaky, lemon-glazed dough.

My stomach and taste buds content once again, I wandered back through the street, taking in the happy faces of the crowd and the wonderful music playing in the background. Although many of the people were not Italian, everyone (and even their dogs) evoked the true meaning of what it is to be Italian- to enjoy the company and people you have in your life and be happy in the moment. For these reasons I am proud to be Italian and carry on my culture. Some of my fondest memories are of Sunday dinners at my grandmothers house, eating dinner with my loud family and knowing this is what love is- enjoying each other and being happy to have these people in your life. Of course, the food is part of Italian culture, but it’s so much more than that; like the Italian saying “Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire,”- no matter where you go or turn, you will always end up at home.

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