Southcoast Today: Heaters, blankets and plexiglass: Federal Hill restaurants are busy, but the battle continues | Rhode Island Commerce

Originally appearing:
By: Mark Patinkin / Providence Journal Columnist
Posted: Friday, October 16, 2020


I checked OpenTable last Saturday to get a reservation on Federal Hill and was surprised at what I saw.

Not a lot of tables were open.

I’d thought the pandemic meant restaurants were struggling.

Not Saturday on Atwells Avenue.

I ended up calling the iconic Camille’s around 8 p.m., and found a just-freed table for two.

As we pulled up at the foot of Atwells, I noticed the whole avenue, for more than a mile, was closed off for al fresco service. It was a lively scene with plenty of diners seated in the middle of the street.

Inside Camille’s, tables were spaced eight feet apart, which cut capacity in half, but all seats were full.

The waiter said it was their busiest night since the pandemic began.

It got me wondering if something is changing.

To find out, I called Rick Simone, one of the most plugged-in hospitality guys in the state. Among other things, he’s the head of the Federal Hill Commerce Association.

He told me most places there last weekend indeed had their busiest night since the state reopened in May.

In June, his group’s 30-plus restaurants averaged around 14,000 diners on a typical combined Friday and Saturday.

By midsummer, it went up to almost 20,000.

This past weekend beat that.

Part of the reason, Rick said, was the holiday, and word that Atwells is now blocked off Fridays and Saturdays.

But he also thinks diners are trusting how far restaurants have gone, pushed by state mandates, to make things safe.

They’ve spent a lot, said Rick, on plexiglass dividers, masks, disposable menus, frequent cleanings and reclaiming sidewalks and alleyways for tables.

Recently, he said, they’ve been further helped by a state initiative called “Take it Outside” giving grants to restaurants, salons, gyms and offices to do just that.

The money was steered through associations, like Rick’s, which put $125,000 into 200 heaters and a mile of lighting strung down Atwells.

They even bought 120 blankets so diners can stay warm, with restaurants pledging safe laundering.

A newish Atwells place called Bacco is a typical survival story.

It’s owned by Armando Bisceglia, who went to Johnson & Wales, managed Federal Hill’s Zooma for eight years and recently created Bacco.

Except Armando had the bad luck of opening two weeks before the shutdown.

Bacco was so new that unlike most Rhode Island restaurants, Armando didn’t qualify for federal PPP money.

But having put everything he had into it, he resolved to hang on.

“Whatever the world threw at me,” Armando told me, “I wasn’t going to give up.”

Bacco is small, around 30 seats, with the flavor of a mom-and-pop Southern Italian bistro, which was Armando’s model.

The indoor spacing rules cut his seats in half – not enough to survive.

So Armando got creative, turning two parking places behind the restaurant into a patio with 20 more spots, and added still more on the sidewalk.

“We had to reinvent ourselves,” he said.

He did carryout during the shutdown, slowly built up after reopening in June, and this past weekend, he did double the business of his best previous night with 115 diners.

I also talked to Michael Costantino, whose dad opened the legendary Italian grocery Venda Ravioli in the 1970s and in 2004, added Costantino’s restaurant, the two now side-by-side on Atwells’ fountained piazza, DePasquale Square.

Restaurants are a big financial engine in Rhode Island, and Michael’s combined business stands out with 300 employees.

It was hard to have to furlough some during the shutdown.

“We’re like family,” he said.

But he was able to keep many of his restaurant folks employed at Venda making pasta, working the grocery and doing deliveries.

When restaurants reopened, he had to reduce his own 80 indoor seats by more than half.

“For every 10 tables,” he said, “there’s two waitstaff, a bus person and a kitchen person. As you lose those tables, those are people’s jobs.”

But DePasquale Square, outside his door, has long been an al fresco spot for him and that’s been huge.

I recalled that protesters went by their twice, even pausing to chant at DePasquale Square diners.

Rick Simone told me they briefly blocked traffic and yelled anti-police slogans, but they weren’t out of control.

At one point, he said, they even chanted, “Tip your server.”

There’s been no looting on the Hill and no sign the protests have affected patronage.

Michael Costantino told me that despite the improved recent numbers, he’s worried about winter, when outdoor dining won’t be easy. Among his survival ideas: individual tents and “dining igloos,” which are easier to heat.

“You have to be creative,” he said.

Rick Simone said restaurants are hoping the governor will allow six-feet indoor table separation instead of eight feet, since most need 65% occupancy to make money.

Indeed, though the restaurant business seems better here, it was hard hit, with a Pew study showing Rhode Island’s hospitality employment down 23% between February and August.

But Rick said fewer here have closed than in other states because of Rhode Island’s passionate culinary and dining-out culture.

In fact, he said, two new places opened on Atwells during the pandemic: Blush vegan bakery and the Southern-style Saje Kitchen.

But like Michael Costantino, Rick worries about the winter.

He thinks some restaurants may pivot to delivery and fewer open days to keep overhead down.

But most restaurants here, said Rick, have done a great job avoiding disaster. Last Saturday’s Federal Hill numbers were a sign to Rick of hope.

At the end of that night, Armando Bisceglia and his wife Gabriela, the last two in Bacco after cleaning up, shared a drink to mark their best night since opening.

They toasted having survived, and even if briefly, thrived.