On Valentine’s Day 2013, Provincetown lost part of its heart with the death, at 91, of Ciriaco G. “Ciro” Cozzi (b 1921), one of the leading figures in the art colony’s post-war renaissance. It was not his paintings that placed him in the pantheon. It was the Italian restaurant that he and Salvatore Del Deo opened in 1954 in a house on Kiley Court. Cozzi bought the building in 1953 because — with three small children in tow — he couldn’t find anyone who’d rent to him. His new property came with a dirt-floor cellar that cried out for a money-generating use. So Ciro & Sal’s was born, as an informal dining spot for fishermen and artists. In time, it became the place to see and be seen. Norman Mailer, for instance, was a longtime regular. “Some of the best Italian cooking I’ve enjoyed,” he said in 1987, “hearty, traditional and yet full of the surprises of truly rare dishes.” And that was Cozzi’s goal, said Matt Tudor, a chef who trained under him and recalled Cozzi declaring: “Every dish should be saltimbocca — jump into the mouth.”
Cozzi came to Provincetown in 1947 from a place that could not, in some respects, have been farther away: the Bronx. After serving in the Army, he traveled to Cape Cod to study under Henry Hensche, through whom he met and befriended Del Deo. He left town for a while to study under Jean Charlot, but was back for keeps in 1951, according to Ciro & Sal’s Cookbook (1987), which he wrote with his daughter, Alethea.
Irene C. Millington sold this house to Cozzi and his first wife, Ero. In a detail from a 1929 post card (pictured above), it appears that the space destined to become Ciro & Sal’s was once the Cellar Shop. Kiley Court itself was still known in 1953 as Peter Hunt’s Lane — the romantic setting for the Peasant Village, beginning at 432 Commercial Street — though Hunt himself had already decamped for Orleans. Cozzi could scarcely afford to own nonproductive property, so he tried to figure out what he’d do with the rudimentary cellar. He asked Del Deo to join him in opening a restaurant. As Cozzi told the story, in the third person:
“The partnership was based on the idea that Sal, who had wanted to be an opera singer, would be a singing waiter and Ciro would bring his restaurant ‘experience’ to the enterprise. (It should be noted that neither proprietor had ever cooked, and Ciro’s restaurant experience consisted of stints as a waiter and dishwasher, both jobs at which he had not excelled.)
“The two young men felt that they could make it, but they were alone in their enthusiasm.”
As it happened, though, they were right. The restaurant was so successful so soon after its opening that the Board of Selectmen threatened to revoke its license if it couldn’t control the noisy crowds that gathered outside until 3 a.m.
All Provincetown seemed for a time to pass through its doors; working there, dining there, or both. It is hard to imagine many restaurants that have been patronized by John Waters and John Wayne. Harry Kemp was a patron in life and after his death in 1960, too, when his cremated ashes were delivered to Rose “Sonny” Tasha as she waited tables at Ciro & Sal’s. “Dan Bernstein (who later became a successful photographer) was working as a cashier that night and and he kept the box behind the cash register for the evening,” Cozzi wrote. “It was Harry’s last visit to the restaurant.”
In 1960, fearing that the increasingly visible gay population was threatening Provincetown’s conventional tourist appeal, Police Chief Francis H. Marshall announced that every waiter in town would be fingerprinted and photographed. Anyone found to have been arrested for sodomy after his records were circulated nationwide would not be permitted to work. Marshall’s constitutional authority may have been nonexistent, but no one was prepared to do battle. Seventeen men lost their jobs. Cozzi had just such a waiter on his staff: Bobby Coal, formerly a dancer in Katherine Dunham’s troupe, according to Peter Manso’s Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape (2002). Ciro refused to fire Coal, Manso wrote. “For two years he kept him in the kitchen, until the law was changed and Coal was allowed back on the floor.”
Del Deo had by this time parted ways. He would open his own restaurant, Sal’s Place, at 99 Commercial Street, in 1963. Cozzi, meanwhile, was expanding the restaurant through the purchases of a building next door, which allowed for a much larger kitchen. Through the 1960s, he expanded the seating area into the house above the cellar, after buying a new home on the other side of the alleyway. In the late 1960s, Cozzi opened a “pantry for the epicurean” called La Dispensa di Ciro, at the Commercial Street end of Kiley Court. Among his employees at La Dispensa — briefly, and at considerable cost — was Harris Glenn Milstead, better remembered as Divine.
In Sarasota, Fla., in 1966, Cozzi married a registered nurse, Patricia “Patti” McNeil, of New Orleans. On moving to Provincetown, she became a civic force in her own right in the health field. She was immersed in the creation of the Provincetown Drop-In Center at 6 Gosnold Street and in the subsequent development of Health Associates of Provincetown, which became Outer Cape Health Services, 49 Harry Kemp Way.
Il mondo Cozzi just kept growing. In 1976, he purchased the famed Flagship restaurant, 463 Commercial, from the founding Patrick family. Four years later, he opened an elegant version of Ciro & Sal’s on Boylston Street in Boston. “I remember long lunches seated in the leather banquettes at Ciro & Sal’s on Boylston Street … with Caesar salad, veal Milanese, and copious amounts of Soave,” Lynn Schweikart wrote on her blog, Savoring the Seasons. “It was there that I discovered carpaccio: raw beef, sliced impossibly thin, then drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and topped with capers and shaved Parmesan.” (I’m having a hard time concentrating on work just reading that description. And there is no carpaccio in my refrigerator.) Then he opened the Ciro di Pasta restaurant in Orleans and, Manso wrote, even started talking with Mailer and George Plimpton about a Ciro’s in Manhattan.
Stretched far too thin — personally and financially — Cozzi at first retreated, closing the Boston and Orleans restaurants in 1987, the same year as the celebratory Ciro & Sal’s Cookbook was published. Two years later, Manso said, he was forced to sell the Flagship. Then it all came back down to the original Ciro & Sal’s on Kiley Court, which was now owned by his daughter Theo Poulin (b 1949). In 1997, she placed the restaurant into voluntary bankruptcy, from which it did not emerge until 2000, when the business, the real estate and even the name “Ciro & Sal’s” were sold for $810,000 to the artist Anne Packard (b 1933); her daughter, Cynthia Packard (b 1957); and Cynthia’s husband, Larry J. Luster (b 1953). Luster, who had first come to Provincetown as a teenager in the late 1960s from Chattanooga, had worked for the Cozzi family for more than 30 years as dishwasher, busboy, prep cook and waiter.
Luster’s vision for the restaurant, he said, was “a revival of the beloved institution and a return to its prominent status in the community, serving traditional recipes of freshly prepared Northern Italian cuisine and restoring the ambience to the comfortable and inviting atmosphere.”
In the early 21st century, Cozzi maintained a public presence through his Gallery Ciro at 436 Commercial Street. His days of triumph were certainly not over. On 18 September 2009, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, of which Cozzi had been president, opened a month-long one-man show devoted to his paintings, curated by Breon Dunigan. The notes to the show said he had been “instrumental in developing the Art Association into a full-fledged museum” and passed on a long-ago appraisal of Cozzi as a man “who could wield a spatula as well as a palette knife.”
Or was it the other way around?