Molly Cooper would like to share the story of why her great-grandfather Nicolo Collida ended up with a one-way ticket to St. Louis from the old country, but it happened so long ago, the details were lost to history – and even if they hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have had the freedom to talk about them.
“My great-grandfather Nicolo came here, from the boat, from Sicily,” says Cooper. “The story is that he saw something he shouldn’t have seen, and he was sent here for his protection. You can get some ideas from that. There are so many stories, I don’t know not if you could print them.”
For a restaurant as old as Piccadilly in Manhattan, the Collida restaurant founded about a century ago, it’s no surprise that many details surrounding its early years have been lost. Why Collida ended up in St. Louis, who got him started in the business, and even what year the restaurant opened are more a matter of tradition than historical fact. What Cooper knows for certain is that great-grandfather Nicolo signed a liquor license for the place in 1934, establishing it as Piccadilly Buffet, although it is little almost sure that the restaurant started long before that.
“The building dates back to 1900; we always knew there was commercial space downstairs and residential space upstairs,” says Cooper. “During Prohibition, no liquor licenses were issued, so we can only draw a definitive line from 1934. However, we have had people research over the years, and they say we’re the oldest restaurant in town.”
Regardless of the exact date of its inception, there is no doubt that the Piccadilly is a living piece of St. Louis restaurant history. Founded as a cafeteria-style lunch and dinner spot, the quintessential neighborhood restaurant has made a name for itself as the place to go for easy home comfort food – fried chicken and ravioli, as its sign still says. – that people would order directly from the kitchen in front of a large bar. Even after the elder Collida passed away in the 1950s, the restaurant remained essentially the same under the management of his two sons, Paul and Tony. When Paul moved on to other businesses, Tony and his wife, Phyllis, took over the place and cemented its reputation for simple, honest cooking.
Phyllis continued to run Piccadilly after her husband’s death in 1983, but the restaurant underwent a significant transformation through a number of forces, including changes to the neighborhood brought about by the loss of industry in the area. During this time, the Piccadilly transformed into a tavern environment, hosting more than a host of bars, with pool tables, darts and a menu of sandwiches, and it continued in this form for almost twenty years until Phyllis felt it was time. to pass the torch to the next generation.
“My grandmother wanted to sell it, but it was in such disrepair that no one wanted it,” Cooper says. “I think there was sentimentality and nostalgia in there; nobody wanted it, but they weren’t ready to see it torn down, so my parents took on the challenge.”
Phyllis sold the Piccadilly to her son, Nick, and his wife, Maggie, (Cooper’s parents) in 2001, although the restaurant was far from turnkey. Wanting to restore its legacy as a neighborhood restaurant, Collidas closed its doors and spent the next six years balancing their full-time jobs with running a full Piccadilly rehab. Finally, after years of hard work and haggling over paint colors and decor, husband and wife opened the new Piccadilly in December 2007.
“It was December 18, my mother’s birthday,” Cooper said. “My dad got up very early that morning to go to the store and get her a birthday present, but he couldn’t find anything. He didn’t know what to get her, so the joke is that he found her a restaurant for her birthday.”
Cooper describes the changes his parents implemented as a restoration of the original Piccadilly. Avoiding buckets of beer and happy hour specials for reasonably priced pies and bottles of wine, the reinvented Piccadilly has spent the past fifteen years honoring its past by serving the kind of food you expect to see on Grandma’s Sunday dinner table. Cooper describes the fare as being unabashedly simple; fried chicken, for example, is made with just flour, salt and pepper and is reminiscent of what people ate growing up but no longer cook themselves.
“My parents always say they wanted to create a place they wanted to go,” Cooper says. “They’re not reinventing the wheel, but they make sure it’s good quality and what they’d like to eat.”
Cooper believes Piccadilly’s stamina goes far beyond its food, even the mammoth pie that has become a restaurant signature since his parents reopened the place. Beyond its historical significance, the relationships she and her parents have developed over the years with their clients have made them feel invested in the success of Piccadilly. Cooper is proud of how many of their names she knows, and she understands that familiarity makes her guests feel like they’re part of something. And no matter how many changes the building, the neighborhood or even the menu might undergo over the years, these relationships are the link that binds Piccadilly to its past – and will underpin its future.
“A lot of people say we’re consistent,” Cooper said. “Nobody’s going to be successful if they don’t update the paint or get the floors redone, but whatever those twists and turns, we always try to make it fit who we are. People expect to come and see Nick or Maggie – and now I am that person – and if we can continue like this, we can give them this continuity.”
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