Thomas A. Perrera, who went from selling newspapers on street corners to cofounding York Road’s Peppermill restaurant, died of esophageal cancer Jan. 11 at Stella Maris Hospice. He was 91 and lived in Mays Chapel in Timonium.
“He loved greeting people and made his guests feel like he was there for them,” said his daughter Darlene Jones.
Born Thomas Attilio Perrera in Baltimore, he was the son of Italian immigrants, Michael Perrera, a mechanic, and his wife Frances, a seamstress who worked in tailoring shops.
He grew up on Exeter Street and attended St. Vincent School until the seventh grade. He did tailoring, sold newspapers on Lombard Street and worked the Berman produce stall at the old Belair Market.
He met his future wife, Rosemarie Munafo, when they were 11 years old and parochial school students. They married Jan. 13, 1951 at St. Katherine of Siena Catholic Church.
He later worked with members of her family at their restaurant, the Gay White Way on North Gay Street near the War Memorial.
“He always loved food, preparing it and having family gatherings. These instincts took him to the restaurant trade,” said his daughter. “He also wanted to leave downtown Baltimore.”
Mr. Perrera and his business partner, Emmanuel “Manny” DiPaola, bought Leonardo’s on York Road in Timonium. He changed its name to Diavolo’s but soon found the concept was not working when a Steak & Ale opened nearby and drew business away.
“People then liked having their Italian food in Little Italy, not Timonium,” his daughter said.
“He had good instincts and he and Manny enlarged the place and named it the Turf Inn — with a surf and turf menu — near the Timonium Race Track. He also bought property around it,” his daughter said. “It was a success and today it’s known as Hightopps.”
He did not give up on Italian fare. He and a business partner, Glenn Charlow, began GT Pizza on York Road at Seminary Avenue.
“It was the same concept as Domino’s. You called and they would deliver,” said his daughter. “He helped set it up and created the sauce.” He later sold the business to a family member.
Mr. Perrera leased what had been an unsuccessful restaurant space at Heaver Plaza on York Road where numerous businesses came and went — Mason’s Heritage House, Knott’s Landing, TJ’s Greenery and Gibson’s.
He changed the name to The Peppermill and never looked back.
His daughter, Theresa McGinn, had been to California and visited a restaurant where servers came to the table with large peppermills. She thought it would be a cute name for the restaurant. The place was so successful that patrons often helped themselves to the namesake wooden pepper grinders.
Mr. Perrera created a partnership with his son-in-law, David Jones, and a nephew, Rick Ziegel. They opened the restaurant in October 1982.
Mr. Perrera stayed close to the front door and welcomed his clientele.
“Tom kept his eye on what people wanted and I knew that Maryland people are die-hards for shad roe, oysters and crab,” said Mr. Ziegel. “Tom loved prime rib and it’s been on the menu ever since. Seafood wholesalers tell us we are their largest restaurant account for shad roe.”
He also said that Mr. Perrera was a welcoming host. “He knew people, had a funny personality, liked jokes and remembered names.”
If he didn’t quite get their names right he would try and people appreciated the recognition.
“Tom was the inspiration for the restaurant. He learned the business the hard way and that’s what makes the best staying power,” Mr. Jones said. “We serve old Maryland fare. How many restaurants can tout that liver and onions as a consistent top seller?”
Mrs. Jones said her father insisted at meetings with his partners to hold the line on prices and always offer a good drink.
Mr. Perrera avoided food trends. Side dishes of stewed tomatoes and applesauce remained on his menu after they disappeared at other places.
Mr. Perrera supervised the bar although he never made his customers’ drinks.
“He might buy drinks for his friends and non-friends, people he had just met,” said his daughter.
He created a policy of giving a generous pour. He personally favored Crown Royal on the rocks.
He often spent an early evening at the bar with a friend, Ed Julio, and they also met on Saturdays.
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At family dinners at home — prepared by his wife — he quipped, “The sauce is boss” or “Dinner was a winner.” And perhaps, “Wear red when you coming so your attire will match the sauce.”
He retired in 2000.
He followed the Maryland thoroughbred racing circuit. He was a close friend of the late Pimlico general manager Chick Lang who was a dining companion. He once had an interest in a thoroughbred named after Murdock Road in Rodgers Forge.
He was an Appian Society member and helped run crab feasts and oyster roasts.
A funeral service will be held at noon Jan. 29 at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home Chapel, 1050 York Road.
Survivors include his wife of 71 years, who was a former Turf Inn host; three daughters, Darlene Jones of Cockeysville, Theresa McGinn of Timonium and Lisa Corbin of Fresno, California; a sister, Theresa Michaels of Perry Hall; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.