Tuesday, March 05, 2024

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At Oscar’s, Saying Goodbye to a Main Street Institution

By James Lomuscio

For the many who crowded Oscar’s Deli today, it was a celebration of 42 years on Main Street—and a chance to say goodbye.

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Melissa Papageorge spreads out books mentioning Oscar’s on a table at the deli today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WestportNow.com photo

There were the last bagels. The last pastries. The final servings and savorings of lox, cream cheese and capers. And, of course, shared memories, handshakes and embraces.

For decades the narrow, snug, albeit cozy eatery with a distinctive touch of Manhattan and an artsy, bohemian flare has remained a popular Westport gathering spot, with al fresco get-togethers under the front awning.

Located at 159 Main St., Oscar’s has been iconic and ironic: a traditional Jewish style deli/restaurant shephered since 1974 by Greek-American Lee Papageorge.

Oscar’s officially closes Monday, something Papageorge, 65, has considered for the past two years as traditional deli fare has had to compete with “soy lattes and gluten free,” said his daughter Melissa Papageorge.

“He wanted people to eat deli,” she said.

Papageorge’s decision to close had been hastened by his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer several months ago. He is currently undergoing treatments at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

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Some Oscar’s employees posed today for a last day picture. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Longtime friend Joe Grushkin, who owns a social media company, did a Facebook live feed from the restaurant, so that Papageorge and his wife Mary Jo could take in all the wellwishes.

“This is my home; I grew up here,” said Melissa, 44.

She said that over the years, many of the town’s artists, actors and writers would gather there.

It was a popular spot of the late actor Paul Newman, who became a family friend, she said. Author Erica Jong used to hole up there to write her novels, drinking coffee all day.

“She used to come in with her hair in a bun and wearing red framed glasses, and at the end of the day her hair would be sticking out like this,” Melissa recalled stretching her arms.

On a table she began to array a number of books, fiction and nonfiction, in which Oscar’s is mentioned. Included were Ed McBain’s “Widows,” Eric Von Schmidt’s children’s book “The Two Giants,” Christopher Byron’s “Martha Inc.” and “Our Place Westport” by Chris Gorman and Michelle Mofitt.

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Oscar’s employees work on last day orders today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Today, Papageorge’s mild-mannered presence and signature smile were gone from behind the counters and from his the chair, an old barber’s chair he had rescued from a shuttered shop in Parker Harding Plaza.

For years the chair was his perch. There, the founder of the Downtown Merchants Association and the unofficial Mayor of Main Street would hold court amidst the bustle of pastrami on rye, Hebrew National hotdogs, soups and reubens plunked down on tables, each with a centerpiece bowl of pickles. Today the chair held a framed photo of Papageorge.

“We grew up coming here,” said Rich Stein.

“And we never stopped coming,” said local developer David Waldman.

“The heart and soul of Westport just got a little dimmer,” Stein continued. “That’s all there is to it.”

Papageorge, who grew up in Fairfield, started out at 16 working for Oscar Siskin at the original Oscar’s that was a few doors down.

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Some of the Oscar regulars gathered at the deli for the last time today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

After Siskin sold it to the late restaurateur Joe Milici, Papageorge came on to work with him, rising to partner and eventually taking full ownership in 1987.

He also bought the building that year, giving him a leg up on other mom and pop businesses that pulled up stakes in the face of rising rents.

While regulars came with a sense of loss found at a wake or shiva, Papageorge’s relatives remained positive about the future, hoping the best for their loved one’s recovery.

“He’s good, he’s good,” said Alex Kochiss, Papageorge’s 30-year-old nephew who began working at the restaurant when he was in college. “He’s strong. It’s step by step.”

Papageorge’s daughter, Ali, recalled how she began busing tables at Oscar’s when she was 15, and after she went to college, “He used to make me come home on weekends to work here.”

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Sisters Melissa and Ali Papageorge on closing day. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Lynn U. Miller for WestportNow.com

“He made me who I am, and he taught me to respect the customers,” she said.

Papageorge’s sister Fanny Kochiss said she began working alongside her brother at the old Oscar’s before coming to the new location.

“When I came home from college, Skidmore, he said he wanted me here,” she said. “I’ve been here on an off for 42 years. Even when I was teaching, 40 years at the Black Rock School in Bridgeport, I would work here on weekends.”

By such tenure standards, Bernadette Scachioni is a newcomer to the place, having worked there only five years.

“I’ve loved it,” she said. “They call me the last Oscarette.”

Melissa said her father’s wish is to have Oscar’s replacement convey the same sense of casual gathering and community, something exemplified by a 1982 mural of Oscar regulars painted by Pamela Markoya.

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Lee Papageorge is pictured at left in this 1982 mural on an Oscar’s wall by artist Pamela Markoya. Papageorge said that he bartered for it, using currency and so many sandwiches. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Lynn U. Miller for WestportNow.com

Among those portrayed in the wall painting are a young, dark-haired Papageorge, the late commercial property owner Drew Friedman and humor columnist Judith Marks-White.

Melissa said that before the space gets gutted for the new restaurant, the mural will be removed.

“I plan to give it to the Westport Historical Society,” she said.

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