The Italian American community in New York City is as established and historic as the city itself. Luckily for us, many Italian Immigrants also ventured upstate to the Capital Region during the waves of European migration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These communities quite literally built and shaped the cities we see today.
These once-bustling Italian neighborhoods still exist in pockets all over the 518. We set out to find authentic Italian restaurants that have been owned and operated by the same families for multiple generations, and have become beloved Capital Region institutions.
This article is presented through a content collaboration with ACE and CapNY. Visit us on Instagram at @upstatecreative and @gocapny!
We’d be remiss not to start our journey in Schenectady’s Little Italy. This North Jay Street neighborhood was built by the Italian community that you can find here to this day.
Founded by immigrants Salvatore & Carmella Perreca in 1914, Perreca’s is one of the oldest continually operating restaurants in the Capital Region. The original brick oven, built more than a century ago, is still used today.
Currently owned and operated by the third generation, siblings Maria & Anthony Papa still make their famous bread using the Old World technique brought from Naples by their grandparents. Legend has it that, in more than 100 years, this oven has never gone out. Anthony explains that the bricks expand when hot. If they were to cool down and contract, the oven could collapse. He comes into the bakery every single day, 365 days a year to put coals on the fire. “I don’t think I’ve taken a vacation since I went on my honeymoon,” he says with a laugh.
“Okay, I’m gonna give one secret away,” says Anthony Papa. “[The oven] actually has been out, once.” He explains that at one point he had to let it cool and actually crawl inside to attempt a daring cleaning expedition.
“The history, and the lure of this area is old school Italian food, done right. My thought when I’m cooking is to always honor the neighborhood,” says Head Chef Neil. He should know! A Schenectady native, Neil was born and raised right here in this “Little Italy”.
MORE Perreca’s Italian Kitchen, 31 N Jay Street Schenectady, New York 12305, telephone 518-377-9800.
Every Albany native knows about Caffe Italia, an institution on Central Ave. In 1974, founder Joseph Romeo opened a small coffee shop on this spot. The local Italian community congregated, drank cappuccino, and picked up an Italian newspaper and other novelties from the Old Country.
Albany’s original “Little Italy” on Madison Avenue was demolished to make way for the Empire State Plaza. As a result, many of those businesses and people were scattered. The Romeos coffee shop stayed where it was, and now and again, Joseph’s wife Jana (Joanne) would make any one of a variety of homemade dishes that were such a hit with customers. Just 6 years later, they bought the Arlington Luncheonette next door and opened Caffe Italia in 1980.
For more than 20 years and with no formal culinary training, Joseph and Jana welcomed the larger Albany community and built an institution that their children have carried on today, with Suzanne as accountant, Pauly as executive chef, and Michael & Maria running the front of house. With room for just 40 guests in the restaurants, Maria tells us of how her family has always prioritized their community above all else.
The Romeo Legacy
“The one thing my [late] father really wanted in this business was for people to relax and have it be an experience, similar to what you would find in your own home or in an Italian home. You don’t just sit and quickly eat. You sit around the table, you have a conversation, you get to know people. Over the years, we’ve built relationships with the people who frequent our restaurant. Now we have generations of families who’ve not only watched me grow but watched my kids grow as well.”
Luckily for our community some of the third generation of Romeo’s, most of whom are teenagers and young adults at the moment, are already learning the trade! And, even better, they’re now bottling their sauce, so you can experience a bit of Caffe Italia at home.
Caffe Italia, 662 Central Avenue, Albany, NY 12206-1645, telephone: (518) 459-8029
Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe
Across the river in Troy, the Lo Porto family are award-winning 5th generation restaurateurs hailing from Sicily. Brothers Salvatore and Michael Lo Porto opened their restaurant in downtown Troy in the 80’s after having immigrated from Italy in the 60’s. Michael is well-known throughout the community as the face of the business. Until a few years ago, you could almost always find him visiting tables to get to know new guests or catch up with the stampede of regulars that have been coming back for 30-something years. His nephew Carmelo, currently the Executive Chef, tells us that he was in the kitchen when he was just 10 years old.
Between Michael and Carmelo, the two Chefs hold around two-dozen credentials and awards. Unfortunately, Carmelo tells me that his uncle Michael has been sick for the past few years. As a result, he has not been as involved as usual. But even during Michael’s absence and throughout the pandemic, Carmelo says that their priority remains the same. “Our number one joy is putting people in the seats, talking to people and talk about our family. We actually see a lot of new faces now. Lots of people have moved up from the city. We see new faces, then start to see them again and again.”
Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe, 85 Fourth Street, Troy, New York, 12180, telephone (518) 273-8546.
This article is part of our “The Authentic 518” Series done in collaboration with Cabrina McGinn and Straight Upstate.
Born and raised in the Capital Region, Cabrina McGinn started her blog in 2019 to highlight the exceptional bars and restaurants that the 518 has to offer. Prior to that, she had spent many years in the restaurant industry, bartending all over New York State. While the blog was started with the intention of focusing solely on cocktails and craft beverages, Cabrina has expanded the blog to feature food, events, hotels, and other unique and exceptional things that you can only find in Upstate New York. Cabrina lives in Saratoga Springs and enjoys exploring the Hudson Valley and Adirondacks on the weekends. Visit the blog on instagram @straightupstate or online at https://straightupstate.com
Stay tuned for more of our monthly The Authentic 518 articles – from hidden gems to Capital Region classics, we’re exploring all the spots that embody the authentic 518.