Hudson Valley restaurant reopens under original name in historic rail depot

La Stazione has recently been taken over by it’s original owner Rocco Panetta. Pictured left to right are staffers Shannon McMorrow and Halie St. Martin, owner Rocco Panetta, chef Francisco Ruiz and general manager Cheryl Valentino. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Diners in New Paltz will be pleased to hear that La Stazione is back in operation — not The Station, as it was renamed when Richard Ronkese acquired the business, but under its original name as a restaurant, under the original ownership. Now officially called Original La Stazione, it had a soft reopening on Columbus Day weekend, and former patrons are flocking back, says longtime proprietor Rocco Panetta. “I’ve got a lot of them calling me,” he asserts. 

Panetta purchased the historic building — the last former station of the Wallkill Valley Railroad remaining at its original location, first built in 1870 and rebuilt after a fire in 1907 — in 1999. He lived on Long Island at the time, running a pizzeria in Levittown called La Focaccia with his brother. “I used to come up here hunting and saw this place. It was abandoned and ready to fall down,” he recalls. “We had to jack it up to replace the floors.”

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The shingle-style structure had been through some hard times by that point. Although there are records of presidents Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes being welcomed at the New Paltz station en route to Mohonk Mountain House, passenger service on the Wallkill Valley Railroad ended in 1937. By 1959 the station was closed; it subsequently spent some time as the meeting space of the local Knights of Columbus chapter.

Freight service on the line wasn’t discontinued until 1977, by which time the former railway station served as the headquarters for Channel 12, New Paltz’s public access TV station. SUNY New Paltz students came there to take hands-on classes in television production in the earliest days of portable video equipment. But the not-for-profit organization that ran the station, the Community Communications Project, didn’t have the funds to maintain the building, beyond obtaining a small grant to repair the leaky roof. At one point, bees even built a hive inside one of the exterior walls.

By the mid-1980s, the station was completely abandoned except by vagrants, and there was pressure from neighbors to tear it down as unsafe. But Robert Mark Realty purchased the building in 1986 and had it renovated for use as a real estate office — for a time. In partnership with Jeff DiMarco of the Gilded Otter, Panetta took over the building in 1999, modernized it, renamed it La Stazione and began serving Italian food. DiMarco dropped out after the first year, but Panetta sustained the business for 14 years, building an addition on the structure’s south side in 2003 before handing operation of the business over to Ronkese in 2013.

Panetta held onto the ownership of the building, however, and stepped out of semi-retirement when Ronkese shuttered The Station last spring. “It closed this May, so I took it back and cleaned everything up and reopened again,” says Panetta. The space has been spruced up, with new rugs and a fresh coast paint inside and out. Dark cherrywood trim, tables and chairs now gleam against the soothing forest-green walls and high ceiling of the dining room, lending the space a subtle country-club atmosphere.

But mostly, La Stazione is all about the food. A native of Calabria who emigrated to the US at the age of 8 and began working in pizzerias full-time at 14, Panetta honed his hospitality skills making and selling pizza across the country. It’s no accident that the Calabrese style dominates La Stazione’s menu — although his new chef, Francisco “Frankie” Castro, was recruited from a Spanish-style restaurant in Newburgh. “He’s cooked in a lot of places,” Panetta says. “And our old chef comes in to consult, Mark Fazio. He worked here for 13, 14 years.”

The current menu features a Pappardelle alla Frankie (homemade pasta tossed with shrimp and scallops in a Prosecco cream sauce) and a Salad alla Frankie (mixed greens, artichokes, roasted peppers, sundried tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, balsamic glaze and extra-virgin olive oil). But some customer favorites from the “old” La Stazione have made a comeback as well, including the Double-Cut Pork Chop Calabrese (grilled and topped with sweet or hot peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes and mushrooms). Hudson Valley One’s intrepid culinary investigator tried another old standby, the Capellini Frutta di Mare, and found it excellent: a nest of fine pasta strands crowned with generous heaps of clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari, all splashed with a light, fresh-tasting marinara sauce. We can also vouch for one of the dessert specials of the evening, a Lemon Berry Mascarpone Cake.

“We have a beautiful wine cellar downstairs, with about 3,000 bottles,” Panetta reminds us. “It can hold up to 14 people, and it’s available for private parties. We’ve booked a few parties already with old customers.” La Stazione’s bar isn’t up and running just yet; the application for a liquor license is under review, and approval could take up to six weeks. “We had an older crowd who used to meet here every Friday night,” he recalls. The mixed-drink specialty of the house was the espresso martini: “We started that back in 2003.”

Meanwhile, folks are coming back to La Stazione just for the food. “Everything is good,” Panetta says. Indeed it is. At present, the restaurant is open from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays through Sundays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Original La Stazione is located at 5 Main Street in​ New Paltz. For reservations or more information, call (845) 256-9447, or visit https://originallastazione.com. You can find it on social media at www.facebook.com/pages/La%20Stazione/329849434041396 and www.instagram.com/lastazionenp.

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