Little Town Blues

One night on New York City’s Lower East Side (LES if you’re cool like that), my noodle buddy and I lingered in a ramen joint watching 14th Street passersby through the window.

“If you folks are done, please pay your bill. We have people waiting for your table,” came the nearly polite manager’s request that we addio, vamanos, git. …

Such strategy is common in a city that never sleeps, alongside other “eat or be eaten” policies, like offering no coffee or dessert (“There’s a coffee shop across the street.”) and “You must order your appetizers with your pizza,” like at Mario Batali’s oh-so superior Otto pizzeria. (Translation: There will be no lingering up-in-here. Gotta make hay).

But the only place outside of NYC where I’ve ever heard of guests being steered out in favor of those waiting (and essential sales) was in our own Merrimack Valley, by Lowell restaurateur Richard Rourke. As founder-owner and premier entertainer of Ricardo’s Cafe Trattoria on Gorham Street, Richard (aka Dick, aka Ricardo) did it his way for 17 years in the intimate and challenging location originally launched as La Boniche. But when La Bo’s chef decided to move her beloved bistro to newer digs closer to the downtown “action,” Dick kept the flames of entrepreneurship alive, sparking his Euro-esque “Touch of Italy with a side of jazz.” It was there that Dick personified Ricardo, fashioning a Lowell institution that welcomed visitors, locals, politicians and big shots — in essence creating Lowell’s most recent embodiment of Tammany Hall.

Both restaurants have since shuttered, going the way of so many these days while the divide swells between fine dining and corporate fast-food options. Ever-mounting costs, competition and legislation have driven greater risk and shrinking returns, often rendering it no longer worth the (already) arduous grind for small independents — the original lifeblood of the hospitality industry.

In its heyday, as you approached Ricardo’s from the street on a hot summer wind, you likely would have heard the sounds of a sultry jazz trio woven within the joyous din of bustle and busy wafting through the open door. Dick, er, Ricardo was not big on AC. He masterfully curated authentic Italian in all its steamy romanticism, despite any complaints. Yelp this. His place, his rules.

Upon entering, you might have noticed the many awards and pictures of celebrity guests hanging on the wall behind the man himself, standing at the small host stand, chin down toward his reservation sheet, almost suspiciously peeking at you over the top of his glasses.

On many a night, Ricardo’s had the air of Rat Pack cronyism — but instead of Frank, Dean and Sammy you might get a friendly wink from Tommy, Terry and Leo. Or Johnny, Andy and TJ. Popular Lowell trios abounded at Ricardo’s back in the day!

A Lowell native, impassioned community member and opinionated political enthusiast, Dick, er, Ricardo had many fans, but also his fair share of critics.

Take it from one who resembles both Dick and Ricardo in this regard — you don’t successfully stay in this business for that long, dealing with the trials presented by a million guests, employees, vendors and local officials in a gritty and economically challenged city, without ruffling a feather or two!

In a business that demands limitless energy, patience, vigilance, passion and perhaps a loose screw or two, neither day-to-day Dick, nor Trattoria Ricardo, was ever shy about voicing his opinion or showing his fire. An avid fan of all things Italian and a devout oenophile —always with a sample of the latest and greatest wine discovery — he was a grand storyteller and passionate host. One moment admonishing an employee from across the room, the next he’d be narrating a tale with the sparkle of a freshly uncorked prosecco. I’ll never forget the time I mentioned an impending trip to Italy while swirling my recommended amarone — its personality as big as my host’s — when Dick, er, Ricardo set to detailing miles of the Amalfi coast on a cocktail napkin, complete with train routes and recommendations of favorite hamlets and vineyards. I carried his zeal along on that unforgettable trip.

Ricardo finally decided this summer that it was time to enjoy just being Dick again. Surely proud of his great legacy, my friend grew weary of that endless battle to remain viable and (mostly) welcoming to both staff and guests.

“For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels. And not the words of one who kneels. The record shows …”

If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. 

Arrivederci, Ricardo. Your incredible spirit will surely be missed.

 

Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which can be found here on our website.

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