From decades-old eateries to trendy new spots, Cortland County is home to countless incredible restaurants. While there are many restaurants you should have on your Cortland County dining bucket list, none will take you on a journey back in time quite like Green Arch. Tucked away on Elm Street in an unassuming white house, this Italian restaurant has been a Cortland favorite since it started serving patrons more than 80 years ago.
Opened in 1933 by Francesca Discenza, visiting the Green Arch is like taking a step back into a previous era. You’ll find the eatery’s history displayed on the walls, Old Fashions line the original formidable bar, and bowls overflowing with pasta, just like Nana used to make, being bustled out of the kitchen.
Up until 2016, it was owned by the Discenza family, passed down to Francesca’s grandson, John Michael Discenza from his father. With retirement in sight, he decided it was time to find a suitable replacement, and the only person he had in mind was family-friend and Cortland native, Matthew Petrella.
Petrella, who owns Petrella Bros. Auto along with various other properties, was no stranger to the restaurant world. He had once owned a bar on Main Street called The Colosseum, and helped his brother, Robby, when he first opened Cortland staple, BRIX Pubaria.
“It reminded me that I never wanted to be in that business anymore,” Petrella laughed, but John Michael had other ideas.
“He (John Michael) was very adamant that he wanted me to have it,” Petrella added. “He knew that I would respect what had happened here, what had grown here, and he knew I had the drive to continue it. I finally said ‘how much?’ and the rest, as we say here, is archery.”
With the community’s full support behind him, the Green Arch was opened with someone other than a Discenza greeting customers at the host table. With the exception of a few physical modifications, it has retained its old-school feel since the transition, and the squeaky front door is no exception.
“A guy said to me once that I had to oil the front door, and I told him it creaks for a reason,” Petrella said. “Back in the old days when all the Italian guys were sitting at the bar they wanted to know when someone walked in behind them.”
That’s what generations of devoted patrons expect from the Cortland City landmark. The vintage marquee sign hanging over the entrance. Photo collages of longtime customers on the walls. Partitioned leather booths in the dining room filled with hungry families. An atmosphere so friendly, it’s not unusual to hear customers converse across the room about the evening’s specials. And if it seems like the famous “Arch” sauce tastes the same, it’s because John Michael still makes it every Sunday.
“You don’t change things like that,” Petrella added. “Everything in this building has a story behind it, and you don’t change that.”
From Thursday through Saturday guests can expect time to stand still for those few hours they spend indulging not only in a heaping plate of Classic Arch Lasagna, but in the stories of those who have been coming to the restaurant since the 40s. In a world where everything is so fast paced, it’s a breath of fresh air to be transported down memory lane, even if it’s not your own.
“I could be so tired that I can’t even feel my hands, but then I get a gentleman who comes over and tells me this is the best experience of his life. I had a woman from Connecticut walk through our front door and she started crying because the booth where she met her husband 72 years ago was still here. That stuff right there...makes it worth it.”
No matter how long his name appears on the deed, Petrella knows the Discenza family will always own a piece of the restaurant and the memories that have been created there.
“I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it for John Michael and his family, I’m carrying a baton that I was handed. What he and his family did here was amazing. We’re going to be 100 years old in 14 years. It’s very humbling.”
So when you’re walking down Elm Street and pass an unassuming white house with a neon marquee sign glowing above the door, stop and give it a look. It’s not just a restaurant. It’s a first date. A family legacy. A cherished memory.
It’s an institution. It’s the Arch.
Green Arch Restaurant
107 Elm Street, Cortland NY 13045
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