PRIMO VINO, which opened on April 15, 1982, was a restaurant that both epitomized and catalyzed Little Italy’s growth as a major dining and entertainment district in Greater Cleveland during the last quarter of the twentieth century.
LITTLE ITALY had a visible and popular food culture prior to the 1980s with restaurants such as Guarinos dating back to 1918 and Mama Santas which began operation in 1961. Primo Vino, however, was transitional in that it had strong local roots, but by virtue of an extensive and sophisticated wine list, it attracted a broader clientele. It would, over its thirty-five years of operation build a loyal cadre of customers who represented the surrounding academic and medical communities and organizations such as the ROWFANT CLUB, as well as local residents or former residents of Little Italy. The diversity of those who “rubbed shoulders” at Primo’s horseshoe bar was astounding. On any particular day, the restaurant might, for example, host an after funeral dinner for a family from the neighborhood and, later, a group of bibliophiles from Rowfant, or physicians from UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL or the CLEVELAND CLINIC. It became the home of a local Italian language group as well as for many bocce aficionados who regularly played on the ALTA HOUSE courts across the street. And, for many years, it was the site of informal editorial gatherings of the staff of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Primo Vino was located in the basement level of a two story 1880s building at the northeast corner of Mayfield Road and E. 126th Street that had been home to several noted neighborhood eateries/clubs, including the Mayfield Supper Club and Rene Cremona’s triad of restaurants (operating separately on all three levels), “Joe Sent Me,” “The Caprice Flamand,” and the “Baroque Turnip.”
The restaurant’s founders and owners throughout its operation were Robert Fatica and Carmen Armenti. Both had grown up in Little Italy and remained resident in and committed to the neighborhood. Armenti’s decision to build a new, modern house in the neighborhood in 1999 marked its first major residential construction in decades. Fatica, a graduate of the Cooper School of Art and the CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF ART brought valuable insights into the atmosphere and décor of the restaurant and well as an extensive knowledge of Italian wines. Both the décor and cuisine at Primo Vino were local. It was furnished with materials salvaged from CATHEDRAL LATIN HIGH SCHOOL which many local men had attended in the years before it closed in 1979. The menu derived in large part from the dishes that Fatica had learned to prepare from his mother and aunt, including dandelion salad, fava beans, and homemade sausage. However, the extensive wine list, mostly Italian vintages, went far beyond the sometimes clichéd views of what constituted Italian wines and it helped build the popularity of the restaurant at a time when the consumption of and interest in wines were expanding throughout the United States.
The decades following the 1980s saw an incredible transition in Little Italy that included a number of new restaurants and the conversion of former storefronts into art galleries and souvenir shops. Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s new upscale housing projects were being started or had been completed along Edgehill and Mayfield Roads. But as the area gentrified, Primo Vino remained a common ground for newcomers, visitors, and neighbors and a site that connected its past and ever evolving present. Those changes, however, along with concerns as to the cost of a full upgrade and restoration of the building that housed Primo Vino, would eventually convince Armenti and Fatica to sell the property for redevelopment in 2017. Its last day of operation was August 11, 2017.
John J. Grabowski