Maria Perdikis grew up dirt-poor in Italy (literally – her house had dirt floors), rode a donkey to the hospital when she had typhoid and ended school in fifth grade to help on the family farm.
Contrast that hardscrabble existence to her world today, the result of a lifetime of hard work and her ingrained Italian work ethic: owner of the Newport Family Restaurant in Delaware, owner of a home, mother, grandmother and fluent speaker of three languages.
“If you work hard, you can achieve anything,” she said in an interview at the restaurant. “I have a house. I have a family. I have the restaurant. I have everything. And I never took a penny from the government. I worked two, three jobs. I am proud of myself to be who I am today.”
“She had to learn how to survive,” said her daughter, Petula.
Maria grew up in Pisterzo, a hamlet in Latina, in the hills halfway between Rome and Naples. Her father died when she was 7, leaving her to help her mother and younger brother.
“Our childhood was pretty tough,” said her brother, Joe Ricci, recalling how they largely lived off the land (olive trees, fig trees and other crops from the farm, plus wild birds they trapped and mushrooms they foraged). “We hardly had anything. As I got older, I never take anything for granted. ”
Maria also worked and lived with nuns and for several years ran the household of a local doctor.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “I was crying every day, and I had to pick myself up.” So she did. Maria, who’s 75, was 17 when her uncle sponsored the family’s move to Canada. She arrived in Toronto on a Thursday (after an 11-day sailing and 76-hour train ride) and went to work on Monday. Factory piecework during the day, dishwashing at night.
She learned English by listening to conversations. When she married a waiter from Greece named Sam, she learned Greek in the same way. Just after Petula’s birth, they moved to America.
“We came with one car, a set of dishes and her,” Maria said, pointing to her daughter. Sam had family in downstate Delaware, and in 1968 they settled upstate, he working at the Hotel du Pont as a waiter, she as a cook at the Strawbridge & Clothier restaurant.
In 1982, they bought the Newport Family Restaurant, committing the equity in their house – and their hard work. “Sam passed away in 1987 and Maria has been running the restaurant on her own ever since,” www.newportfamilyrestaurant.com says. The restaurant, at 601 W. Newport Pike, Newport, has a staff of a dozen and seats 90. It’s open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays. It closes for 10 days in August for them to visit family in Canada. Early on, they tried and gave up on Greek food. Four Italian platters are always on the menu, and something Italian is often a daily special, but “the people around here like meat and potatoes, chopped steak, gravy, lots of gravy,” Maria said. The house specialties are chicken croquettes, available daily; crabcakes, a Friday special; and chicken and dumplings, Tuesday’s only special.
Maria has trimmed her hours, leaving mid-afternoon most days, but stays through dinner on Tuesdays. “The dumplings I like to do myself,” she explained. A secret recipe? “We would never say,” Petula said. “I still love Italian food,” Maria said, particularly spaghetti and gnocchi. But at home, which Maria and Petula share, the menu tends to be equally meat and potatoes, catering to granddaughter Luciana Kehr. Petula and Kehr FaceTimed with Maria from Pisterzo when Kehr was singing with her high school choir at the Vatican, but Maria has never returned to Italy since she left in 1964. “I never went back because I’m scared to fly.” Their home has an Italian décor: marble in the kitchen, an iron stairway and leather furniture.
She isn’t thinking about retirement. “I don’t like to stay home. so I’m keeping at it as long as I can.” “She doesn’t like to chill out,” added Petula, a freelance musician. “She’s the hardest worker that I know. She came here with zero anything and has achieved the American dream.” “Whatever she has accomplished she has earned by hard work,” Ricci said. Maria got a taste of retirement when the pandemic forced a three-month closure. “It was good for like a month, but after that I said ‘I gotta get out of here.’ ” “ ‘Stir-crazy,’ I said to her,” Petula said. “This is the way it feels if you retired, and she said –” “No way,” Maria finished.
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