Friday, July 5, 2013


Undated postcard for Portofino

Location: 206 Thompson Street, New York, New York, USA

Opened: 1959

Closed: 1975

David W. Dunlap had a charming piece in the New York Times a few months ago. It was on Portofino, a little Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. It was not extraordinarily famous in its day. Relative to other New York restaurants of the time (the early 1960s), it was pretty affordable and informal. But the food was tasty (the boneless chicken Portofino and the scaloppine with butter and lemon were raved about by food critic Craig Claiborne). And on a good night, you might even spot a celebrity at the next table, somebody like Bobby Short or Lorraine Hansberry (the African-American lesbian writer). 

More than that, it had a reputation for being friendly to lesbian diners:

But Portofino offered something else — on Friday nights in particular. It offered a place where women who wanted to rendezvous with other women could do so discreetly, with little fear of exposure or entrapment.

In fact, this is where Edith S. Windsor (who brought about the end of DOMA in the recent Supreme Court decision) met her future wife in 1963.

At the time, Edie was divorced and 34 years of age. As Dunlap explains, 

She knew what she wanted but had no clue how to get it without risking her career at I.B.M. “I suddenly couldn’t take it any more,” she said in the documentary Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement (2010), “and I called an old friend of mine — a very good friend — and I said, ‘If you know where the lesbians go, please take me.’ O.K. So she took me to the Portofino for dinner.”

“The lesbians used to go there on Friday night,” she said, “and somebody brought Thea [Spyer] over and introduced her. And we ended up dancing.”
With more research, a picture of Portofino takes shape. 

“It was not one of the bars the ladies frequented regularly,” said the writer Marijane Meaker (pseudonymously M. E. Kerr), who is now finishing a memoir, “Remind Me.”

“You would be in error to write that Thea and Edie going to the Portofino was what began the landmark case coming up tomorrow,” she said in an e-mail. “It had begun years before, in many bars, mostly in Greenwich Village.” Some of the better-known among them were the Bagatelle, the Laurels, Provincetown Landing, the Sea Colony, Page Three, Seven Steps Down and Lonnie’s Hideaway.
“Most of these little joints were owned and run by organized crime in cahoots with the cops,” the novelist Ann Bannon said. “It was scary to be there if they hadn’t been raided by the police in a while. It meant the restaurant might be overdue for a raid, and you could end up in a paddy wagon on your way to the police station.
The dining room of the Malt House.David W. Dunlap/The New York TimesThe dining room of the Malt House, formerly Portofino
“Those were the days when they printed your name in the paper the next day,” Ms. Bannon continued. “And if, as a result, you were outed as L.G.B.T., your life was really turned upside down. It was not uncommon for people to lose their jobs, their friendships, even their family ties, so great was the opprobrium attached to that contaminated identity.”
If someone spotted you leaving Portofino, on the other hand, no suspicions were likely to be attached. The owner was Alfredo Viazzi, a restaurateur who became better known later for Trattoria da Alfredo, at Eighth Avenue and West 12th Street.
“It was a nice mix of people,” Mr. Guaitolini said. “A couple of the waiters were gay, but it was not a big issue. In that environment, it was taken for granted.”
The space is now occupied by the Malt House gastro pub. 

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