A school counseling career in Brooklyn prepared Cambridge native Sam Cortiella, 38, to open a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic.
“I worked at Williamsburg Charter High School in Bushwick and Achievement First Middle School in Brownsville. My kids really taught me that life is too short, and don’t take yourself so seriously. You can overcome things. A lot of my kids had a lot of trauma, and they were really resilient. They showed me that if they can overcome the trauma in their households and neighborhoods, then I can overcome anything,” he says.
So he opened PapiVivi in Lynn two months ago, serving Puerto Rican sandwiches, empanadas, and juices to go. It’s an homage to his 13-year-old daughter, Vivi, who still lives in New York City. The two love to bond over food, and she pitches in behind the counter whenever she visits.
How did PapiVivi begin?
It started out of New York. It’s a father-daughter project; we wanted to do something together to find that common bond. I was an athlete, she’s not so much, but we love food and making food. My dad is from Puerto Rico. I grew up with my dad’s family and have been eating rice, beans, and tostones my entire life.
We started making these sandwiches — little sliders — and going around New York City handing them out and getting feedback. We stated an Instagram page. I was a school counselor at the time. The page blew up. I had no expectations at all. It was something that took us by surprise. Friends and others on the street gave us great feedback, so I decided to start an LLC, and we started doing street festivals all over New York. We were selling out at events and festivals, and then we came back to the Boston area. My wife is from New Hampshire. We started doing pop-ups around Boston, at breweries and distilleries, selling out again. So it was time for a brick-and-mortar.
For two years, I drove Uber, just looking. I found nothing that was affordable. Then I had a friend in Lynn who had an auto-parts shop. He suggested I check out the city. There was a place for sale, and we decided to buy. Now we’re here in Lynn, and it’s a great thing.
Talk to me about opening in a pandemic.
The timing was insane. We had bought the place right at the height. Getting open took us five months. We weren’t making money for five months, and it was really, really tough. We had some help from the bank, but we weren’t qualified for PPP or any other federal loans. We were spending money and not making money, and there were times when I thought we’d have to close before we opened.
Did you ever think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this’?
I was all in. In business you’re either all in or you’re all out.
How’s it going so far?
It’s been amazing. I knew it would be. I’ve got confidence. I was a school counselor for ten years, and I taught my kids one thing. They taught me so much more, but I said, ‘It’s so important to have that self-confidence.’ We’re not talking cockiness — just self-confidence, that when you decide to do something, you do it 100 percent. You give it your all. I believed in this from day one, and other people from their feedback believed in it. We’ve had a lot of customers come in from all over the state, even other states. There’s not a lot of Puerto Rican restaurants in the area, and it’s something I wanted to do to represent my family and part of my culture. It was really important for me to do that. It’s been great.
Did you ever dream of a culinary career growing up?
I grew up in Cambridge. I was an athlete. There was nothing in the food industry that I ever thought about doing. I was an athlete my entire life. I went to play junior college baseball in Texas, came back, went to Northeastern. I stopped playing baseball and went on to NYU to study school counseling, and from there did 10 years in New York as a school counselor in middle school and high school. But this was one thing my daughter and I had in common: We love to eat, we love Puerto Rican food, and my daughter’s mom is also Puerto Rican. She’s been eating it since she was in the womb, and we love sandwiches.
What’s the difference between working in New York and Boston?
I love New York, but I have so many friends and family here. It’s exciting to be back, closer to my mom. My daughter still lives in Queens. She comes for the summers and once a month. But Boston is a special place. I love Lynn. I love our location because we’re on the border of Saugus and Lynn. Lynn is predominantly Hispanic, and Saugus is predominantly Caucasian, and that’s kind of who I am. My mom is American as you get. She was an Army brat, and I grew up going to Army-Navy games and eating blue-shell Maryland crabs. That’s where she’s from. But I was also eating rice, beans, and tostones. Saugus and Lynn represent who I am. I have two different worlds, so that was a great fit for me. I can bring these two worlds together. It’s a place for everyone from all types of backgrounds to feel welcome and to see the beautiful culture and food of Puerto Rico.
Describe Puerto Rican food.
It’s just rich with flavor. Everything that we do is in a base sofrito, which is a marinade of garlic, cilantro, and onion. Garlic is a big part of our cuisine. We do non-pretentious food that everyone can afford, and we marinate everything. Everything is fresh. We don’t use processed meats. We do your typical street food that you’re going to get going around the island: rice and beans and meats. We have pork shoulder, chicken breast, and ground beef. We do street sandwiches. The tripleta comes with potato sticks, and we toast it in garlic butter on the press, and we use our special house sauce, which is called PapiVivi sauce — a mayo-ketchup-garlic-cilantro sauce, which people love. I integrated New York in there. Chopped cheese is a big bodega sandwich from New York, so we integrated that into our menu as well. And we do these loaded fries, which you can get on the island: pretty much French fries with a cheese sauce on top and covered in meat and house sauce on top of the meat.
We do juices, like a passion fruit juice, which is big on the island, and empanadas, fried turnovers with meat and cheese, which people seem to really enjoy as well. A lot of recipes came from my grandmother; I grew up with her food. A lot of recipes come from my daughter’s mom.
Growing up in Cambridge, what was your favorite restaurant?
I mean, listen, Angelo’s pizza was right next to the high school. I used to love the chicken sandwiches. That one sticks out. And you know where I really liked? There used to be a Tacos Lupita in Somerville. I really used to enjoy their pupusas. I don’t think it’s still there anymore. I also grew up in Somerville going to La Ronga Bakery for fresh bread. That was big for me.
Do you have any hangouts now, when you’re not working?
I live up in Nashua now, so it’s tough for me to get down here. But, when I go visit my mom, you know where I love? I love going to the 99 and just having a cold beer and some wings.
Last question: favorite quarantine snack?
Cool Ranch Doritos.
PapiVivi, 816 Boston St., Lynn, 339-440-5562, www.papivivi.com
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.