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Ciro & Sal’s bohemian roots

Deborah Minsky for the Provincetown Banner

My husband and I both worked at Ciro & Sal’s. We met there in 1969, my very first night as hostess.

PROVINCETOWN — My husband and I both worked at Ciro & Sal’s. We met there in 1969, my very first night as hostess. Recently I was going through old notes and found a summary from conversations Ciro Cozzi and I had years ago when we had vague thoughts of writing a cookbook together. That plan never really happened. (He later wrote a cookbook with his youngest daughter.) But, from my notes, this is how Ciro described the origin of the East End restaurant in Provincetown that remains open today in the same location.

Ciro’s history in Provincetown started in the summer of 1947 when he came to paint with Henry Hensche, the “foster father” of many a young artist back then. Over the course of his studies, he quickly grew to love Provincetown’s crazy blend of the Old World, independent fishermen and the fresh-from-the-Army eager young artists. In April, 1950, he decided to settle in town permanently.

Trying to support his expanding family while following his dreams as an artist, Ciro took on dishwashing jobs at both The Everbreeze and The Town Crier.

Imagine him that summer, a frantic young father hustling between jobs, wanting to devote his time to painting but knowing that his art alone would not provide sufficient income. Even so, such difficulties did not eclipse his happiness living in Provincetown. There was a vibrant spirit of hope, creativity, and helpfulness among his friends. He need not worry about starving, and the rest would come later.

Ciro persisted with the mad pace of his life, and by the spring of 1952 his position had improved to the point that he decided to buy a home in town. Irene Millington, a friend of artist Peter Hunt, offered to sell her house on Kiley Court. This narrow, dead-end alley, which had once been the center of Hunt’s peasant art creativity, seemed to be the ideal spot for Ciro to settle. The problem of how to finance this purchase was quickly solved when Ciro’s Uncle Amadeo offered the down payment.

At first Ciro thought only of living in the house, but he soon recognized the possibilities that the dark, low-ceilinged basement offered. It could be an after-hours sandwich shop. His friends did not initially share his enthusiasm. In fact, when he tried to borrow money to purchase basic kitchen equipment, many people refused. They said the place was too small and too far from the center of town to attract many customers. However, help was soon to arrive. Friend and fellow artist Sal Del Deo, recently released from his stint in the Army, offered his $120 severance pay, and Ciro and Sal became partners in an enterprise that few could believe in.

Their first stove was a discard from a nearby restaurant, claimed before it was sent to the dump. Sculptor Eddie Euler donated a used icebox, and a sink with three tubs, required by the Board of Health, was supplied through the labor of Sal’s father. With the remainder of their $120 dollars, Ciro and Sal bought paint and a Silex coffee maker. Sal’s father travelled to Providence, Rhode Island and returned with sausages, cold cuts, and cheese for making sandwiches. The musty old basement was decorated with travel posters, old ships’ beams, and driftwood gathered from the back shore. Ready for business, they opened shop with a huge party for their friends.

Ciro & Sal’s was an immediate success; at the time there was no other place in town where people could eat after the bars closed at 1 a.m. Word spread quickly, and soon Kiley Court was packed with people into the wee morning hours. At first the new “hosts” were too shy to charge their friends for the food they cooked, until neighbor Bill Marsh came to the rescue with an official order book. It was time to stop the perpetual party and try to make some money.

However, all was not peaceful on Kiley Court. The once quiet lives of residents in the area had been disrupted by throngs of carousing customers. Neighbors lodged complaints with the Selectmen, who, with the exception of Bill White, decided to revoke their license. Selectman White wanted to give them one more chance, with the stipulation they close shop at 11:30 p.m. The other selectmen agreed to a two-week trial period.

Ciro and Sal soon found that there was no great demand for sandwiches between the hours of 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. Not easily discouraged by this discovery, they simply changed their menu. Their after-hours sandwich shop morphed into an evening restaurant.

Neither man had any professional cooking experience, but they had been raised with a great appreciation for traditional Italian cuisine. They loved to eat, and so they assumed that anyone who loves good food could learn to be a great chef. They started with a simple menu of spaghetti and meatballs or spaghetti and sausage, and then slowly expanded their offerings. Still operating on a severely limited budget, Ciro and Sal shopped with a well-intentioned but naive eye for grocery bargains, sometimes with hilarious results!

The first main dish they introduced to supplement their pasta menu was “Chicken Capitano,” named after an uncle who had served in the Italian army. In their estimation, the basic recipe for this dish was quite good, but the first time they prepared it they used the A&P’s “best bargain” fowl, commonly used only for soup stock. They didn’t recognize the merits of the slightly more expensive, but much more tender, spring chicken. Despite hours of slow simmering, the old bird remained so tough no one could get a fork through it. Thinking the situation hopeless, Ciro and Sal decided to remove “Chicken Capitano” from the menu, at least for the night. However, much to their dismay, an order for their new “delicacy” had already been made by an unwitting customer. They served the doomed dish. A deadly hush filled the kitchen as the customer valiantly attempted to eat his dinner before finally giving up the fight and leaving the chicken unscathed. As he exited the restaurant, the customer shyly declared the “sauce was great.”

As a restaurant, Ciro & Sal’s rapidly became a gathering place for many people in town. The authenticity of the food and relaxed attitude made the restaurant a welcome spot for people who wanted to convene with friends and chat over a cup of coffee. One long table, situated closest to the kitchen, became the “family table” for habitues. Local sages congregated to share their ideas; musicians strummed their guitars. The staff served themselves and their friends as much food as was sold to customers, but Ciro and Sal remained unperturbed and basked in the warm feelings that emanated from their generosity. These artists/chefs were not businessmen yet, but a great future lay ahead.

Sal ultimately ended his business ties with Ciro and opened his Sal’s Place in the west end of town. As the decades passed, each man succeeded in his own right. Their artistic careers flourished even as their restaurants thrived independently. Best of all, their friendship lasted through the decades. On Feb. 14, 2013, Ciro Cozzi passed away at the age of 91. Everyone who attended his funeral service at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Provincetown found great solace when Sal Del Deo sang a stirring solo to wish his lifelong friend farewell. Provincetown is blessed that Sal still remains with us. Ciro and Sal will never be forgotten.

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