Photo Courtesy James Blucher
The Avenue is hustling and bustling with its usual Tuesday night crowd, mostly locals at this point. Everyone is chattering through thick, humid heat, still tired from the weekend before. There is a retching, someone expelling regret or maybe just the two hotdogs he ate at the 7/11 around the corner. The Food Market lulls with unusually quiet conversation, almost unheard of in this typically lively restaurant. One corner of the bar, the darkest, is exceptionally energetic for the dull night. This is the corner where Lou Catelli sits.
He is wearing his trademark short shorts, blue corduroys this time. He has his classic look: chest hair out, sunglasses on and grit in his voice. He is the quick-speaking, sambuca-sipping unofficial (and self-appointed) Ambassador of Hampden. In actuality, he works as a liaison between potential restaurant owners looking for space in the neighborhood and the property owners, finding locations for new restaurants, but we all build the narrative we need.
Catelli first came to Hampden in 2008 to help open Grano Pasta Bar, a small, corner Italian restaurant with barely enough room for patrons to do a four-step dance in their personal space. This, Catelli explained, is what drew him to the neighborhood, “Oh yeah, blame [Grano] or thank them. If it weren’t for [Grano], I wouldn’t be here. Hampden saved my life.” It was the experience of living and being there that compelled him to stay.
“I was at Grano working and every night we closed, I would wander down to Rocket to Venus and I would sit there and just watch people just come in and come out and I realized that everyone is here from a different walk of life and that’s the whole neighborhood. Everyone here gets it … it reminds me of a dream of probably what it was a long time ago. You walk down the street and everyone’s saying ‘hi,’ it’s like an old town America.”
Since then, Catelli continued to open restaurants in the neighborhood, most recently Paulie Gee’s on Chestnut Avenue, a project that was originally expected to open in 2013. “We just opened up a project that took almost four years … this guy has a heart of a lion. There were so many obstacles and he never gave up. It’s been an instant success,” Catelli said.
Up next is a seafood restaurant, Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, and Five and Dime Ale House, the area’s first sports bar. His dream project, he says, is to open up a bowling alley.
In between the two places, Catelli has opened up numerous other spots, each with its own unique quality. Arthouse, a restaurant with life-changing pizza and even more life-changing artwork, opened in 2010, but not without a struggle. “We get to this point we have an opening day, we have a chef that everybody agreed upon to hire. He’s there for a month. Literally 36 hours before opening, he says, ‘its not gonna work out, I quit.’ So I threw on the apron and manned the oven for two weeks. My Italian heritage finally paid off,” Catelli remembered.
Those weeks brought fond memories and Catelli says the place has a soft spot in his heart. He even stays above it and has a drink named after him there that came about in the opening weeks. The drink, the Fantalou, consists of prosecco, ice and Fanta orange. “The oven is like 900 degrees so you drink it, you sweat it … Those two weeks were sublime.”
His stories come out in numbers, each more extravagant than the last, but what can you expect from a man who has chopsticks in his hair.
Catelli is now preparing for the upcoming Hampdenfest, the community’s fall festival that features everything from toilet bowl races to pie eating contests. The festival, which appears seamlessly put together, was far from it three years ago when the city made them move the date from the second Saturday, when the festival has always been held, because it conflicted with a big city celebration.
“We all sat down and said ‘You know what? We’re gonna do it whether you let us or not.’ So we switched it to the third Saturday instead. The second Saturday, it rained like a dog and the third Saturday, it was the most beautiful day and so we’ve kept it the third Saturday ever since,” Catelli remembered.
The neighborhood banded together, planning the event for the next weekend. “One of my finest moments was that 2014 festival. We were on the roof of Hampden Hall watching Future Islands. At this point it’s 6:30 p.m. and from Roland Avenue to Elm Street, it was packed with people. You couldn’t move. The whole avenue moved. It was amazing and everything had to go wrong for that to happen. We had the sway on 36th Street,” Catelli recalled.
Catelli ran the toilet bowl races once, a sort of DIY race where contestants must make a vehicle that somehow includes a toilet and is powered by a hard push, which he says are both his favorite and least favorite part of the festival. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of sambuca. There’s only so much Molinari sambuca a man can have in a day and I triple that every year at Hampdenfest,” he said.