By Geoffrey Elterich
The Featherweight. The TKO. The Jab. These are some of the delicious salads and sandwiches you’ll find at Willie Pep’s Corner Café. The names, and the café itself, are an homage to the legendary Hall of Fame boxer Guglielmo Papaleo, better known as Willie Pep.
April Miller, Pep’s step-daughter, is trying to keep the memory of the Connecticut icon alive. April worked as a bartender and waitress for over 20 years. When her stepdad passed in 2006, she realized that there was no real tribute to him in the state. After moving to New Britain, she decided to accomplish two goals at once: run a business of her own and honor the legacy of Willie Pep.
“With all his accolades, it was astounding to me that nothing had been done,” April says. “I just want him to be remembered.”
Pep, born in 1922, was a first generation Italian American who came of age during the Great Depression. Before he picked up boxing, he worked as a shoeshine boy in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. He first fought as an amateur in 1937. In 1938, he fought the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson in the attic of a feed store in Norwich.
Pep started boxing professionally on July 10, 1940, winning by decision at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford. In the early
part of his career, Pep mostly fought in New England, but over the next 26 years, he fought all over the United States and Canada.
In 1990, Pep was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He was voted the #1 featherweight of the 20th Century by the Associated Press and ranked the #1 featherweight of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization. He was also ranked 5th on ESPN’s 50 Greatest Boxers of All-Time list.
“Willie was the quintessential boxer of his time,” April says. Pictures of Willie boxing and lounging with Babe Ruth and other celebrities line the walls, emphasizing her claim. “I decided to honor him in this way, because it’s what I know how to do. This place really represents who he was.”
Everything in the café has a personal touch, from the food, to the service, to the menu hand-written in chalk on a giant blackboard. Unlike many businesses these days, Willie Pep’s Corner Café is owner run and operated. April and her mother, Barbara Papaleo, Willie’s sixth wife, can be seen cheerfully cooking and serving food every weekday.
“This business is such a social thing. I work with mom. We are very open with customers. If they have a complaint, we’ll fix it. We don’t get offended, it’s about giving them what they want. Real food. Reasonable prices. Friendly service. We want people to know there’s nothing we won’t do for our customers.”
It’s all a testament to Pep’s legacy, a legacy that deserves more recognition. Willie Pep was a true icon, who made an impact on everyone that watched him fight and everyone he knew. “Nobody will ever touch his record, but it’s more than that,” April explains. “I want people to know who he was. He had 6 wives. He bet on the horses. He loved his donuts and morning coffee. He loved his family.”
The food and atmosphere create nostalgia for days past. Black and white footage of Pep plays on the television. Pictures of him line the walls. Eating at Willie Pep’s is a trip back in time to when boxers often fought twice a week and matches were 15 rounds. A time when local eateries served real, hearty food with all natural ingredients.
“So many older, first wave immigrants, old Italian and Irish men, thank us for having a place for them to go,” April
exclaims. “It’s a place for them to be comfortable, to have a cup of coffee and a sandwich in the morning.”
And during the afternoon, the lunch menu contains sandwiches like the Neutral Corner, an incredibly tasty concoction with so much roasted chicken it falls out the sides. All of the sandwiches are made with generous portions of fresh ingredients. Over the past year, local residents and businesses have taken notice.
Alexis Rodriguez, a New Britain resident who works close by, is a regular at the café. “They are always warm and welcoming,” he says. “It’s a local business that really puts the customer first and always provides quality, fulfilling sandwiches.”
April explains she decided to open the cafe at 366 Farmington Avenue because of its convenient location. “A lot of business people, from the Batterson Park area get lunch here.” There are also several schools nearby, and April enjoys the interactions with local schoolchildren. It gives her an opportunity to inform the next generation about the great Willie Pep.
“The best part is when kids come in and ask, ‘What movie was he in?’ Then we explain that he was a real person. So they’ll go look him up, and the next time they come in, they’ll try to tell us about him!”
“The restaurant helps people learn,” April continues. “We see a lot of people looking him up on their phones as they eat. People will even call here asking questions about him. The café serves as a hub of information about him.”
“If I close the door tomorrow, I’m already a success,” April says proudly.
For the sake of the legacy of the Will o’ the Wisp, and for those of us who crave good food in New Britain, let’s hope she doesn’t close the doors any time soon.
Willie Pep’s Corner Café is open Monday through Friday 7am-4pm. It is closed Saturday & Sunday.
Visit the website to see their menu: www.williepepscornercafe.com
Call ahead to place an order 860-223-7377.