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Closing time
Camille's Roman Garden, a Providence institution, faces an uncertain future
BY IAN DONNIS

Camille's Roman Garden was doing a typically brisk business last Saturday night around 9, as a mix of diners, many with the sense about them of being out for a night on the town, ate, drank, joked, talked, and cajoled in the restaurant's huge main dining room. It has been this way for years, since 1919, in fact, and the distinctive elements of the Federal Hill landmark, from the reproductions of early Renaissance murals on the walls to the Prohibition-era private alcoves that ring the dining area, proved just as comforting to the visitors as the arriving plates of fried calamari and veal scallopini.

Al Forno is better known, and there are other places to eat that are more popular, trendy, or cutting edge. But in a disposable culture, not to mention the notoriously difficult business of sustaining a restaurant, Camille's exudes duende, the rare place that's pure Rhode Island with a dash of Las Vegas, the kind of joint where Frank Sinatra would have felt right at home. (The Chairman of the Board actually favored Camille's Italian wedding soup, says owner Gary Mantoosh, and once, during a mid-'70s performance at the Civic Center, audibly burped before saying, "Excuse me, but I just had the most wonderful food at Camille's Roman Garden.")

Described as the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Rhode Island, and by fodors.com as the second-oldest family-operated restaurant in the United States, Camille's is a venerable classic, tucked in on Bradford Street, around the corner from Atwells Avenue, near the entrance to Federal Hill. But the Providence institution faces an uncertain future -- and quite possibly the wrecking ball -- after Mantoosh recently reached an agreement to sell it. Mantoosh said it's probable that the buyer, whom he declined to identify pending the closing of the sale, will demolish Camille's and replace it with a residential building. There's talk that the buyer's plans may include the neighboring Old Canteen, another landmark on the Hill.

Mantoosh, 45, a nephew of Camille Parolisi, the 92-year-old matriarch for whom the restaurant was renamed in 1952, knows that many his customers are deeply saddened by the news. But after working in the business for 30 years, starting as a dishwasher at age 15, and then running the restaurant for 14 years, becoming the sole owner about five years ago, he unapologetically says, "That's a very long time to stay in one place. I'm not spending the next 30 years of my life, again, doing the same things."

The proprietor says his decision to sell was motivated in large measure by a desire to spend more time with his children, Erin, a social worker in Bristol, and Gary, a publicist in New York City. "It was time for me to move on my life," Mantoosh says, citing no other particular plans for the future.

Sitting in the restaurant's appealingly dark lounge, Mantoosh expressed satisfaction that his clientele extends from a well-dressed couple celebrating a 40th birthday to young guys in casual attire who stopped into the bar for an appetizer and a drink. But although many restaurateurs might take a busy dining room as the ultimate measure of success, he also cites grievance with some of his more affluent customers -- such as grown men who act like infants because they didn't get the table they wanted on a Saturday night. "I've gotten to see a different side of many well-to-do people in this city that most people will never see," Mantoosh says.

In the end, he says with a touch of bitterness, "We've been better to the people than the people have been to us." And for those who are devastated by the impending loss of Camille's, which is expected to close in three or four weeks, and say they're going to miss it, "I feel like saying to them," Mantoosh says, " `Isn't it a little too late?' "

THE LUMINARIES who have visited Camille's over the years include Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda, Yoko Ono, Diana Ross, John F. Kennedy Jr., Bob Hope, and the members of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and the Who. Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. has been coming to the restaurant since he was a little boy. The visitors have also included mobsters such as the late Raymond L.S. Patriarca, who once controlled the Mafia in New England from a nearby vending machine shop on Atwells Avenue. "This was their place," says Mantoosh. "There was never any problem, any incident."

Founded in 1914 as Marconi's, for the inventor of the wireless, at 174 Atwells Avenue, the restaurant moved five years later to its present location in a 19th-century mansion at 71 Bradford St. During Prohibition, illegal booze was made in the basement and served to customers, hidden in the alcoves by curtains, in coffee cups. The restaurant's founder, Pasquale Parolisi, passed it to one of his sons and his daughter-in-law, Jack and Camille, in 1952. Camille's alumni include Walter Potenza and the founders of the Blue Grotto and Capriccio.

Although Mantoosh (who says the restaurant may reopen under different management before a development plan goes forward) is unsentimental, it'll be a sad day when Camille's passes from the scene. The most important thing about a place like Camille's is that it connects Providence with its past, and such places are rare. The food is a meld of traditional Italian-American favorites, but the ambience is the real drawing card - relaxed for some, celebratory for those looking to celebrate, and quietly dramatic for avid students of the mythology of Rhode Island's rascals and outlaws.

After I was hired here, some of the honchos at the Phoenix took me out for lunch at Camille's -- the only real choice -- and it was hard not to feel transported in time as we sat in the lounge, done up with velvet brocades and black-and-white pictures of Roman antiquities, drinking vodka martinis and eating calamari. It's this unusually vivid sense of place that will be mourned -- and fondly remembered -- when it's no longer here.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

Issue Date: September 28 - October 4, 2001