Caffe Lil Italy, the tiny Salem St. cafe across from the Old North Church, received strong support this week from local officials at a Boston Licensing Board hearing for a new beer & wine license despite opposition from the North End / Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) and some residents. The North End’s City Councilor Sal LaMattina and State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz testified in person at the hearing as did representatives of Mayor Menino, Councilor Ayanna Pressley and Councilor Stephen Murphy.
The politicians universally cite their high regard for the character and reputation of North Ender Carla Agrippino Gomes, owner of Antico Forno and Terramia. Ms. Gomes recently bought Caffe Lil Italy at 178 Salem St., with 7 tables, 19 seats and no kitchen other than a sandwich press. The 600 sq. foot cafe has been operating without a liquor license for about six months, serving coffee and food products such as muffins, bagels, pastries, ice cream and sandwiches. The liquor license request does not include a restriction to serve alcohol only with food.
The political support is counter to the 6-1 vote opposing the license from NEWNC, the Neighborhood Council, a group of elected neighborhood advisory representatives.
NEWRA, the other advisory neighborhood group represented at the hearing by Victor Brogna, expressed no opinion but asked for a deferral because they will not vote on the matter until their May 12, 2011 meeting. Daniel Toscano, attorney for Ms. Gomes, opposed NEWRA’s request for a deferral at the hearing. He said Caffe Lil Italy made a request to be heard by NEWRA on March 26th and the group denied to hear the application at its March 29th sub-committee and April 14th membership meeting. While the deferral request was noted, the Licensing Board held its deliberations immediately after the hearing.
Should NEWRA vote against the license at is May meeting, as many residents expect, it would be a rare instance when local officials would go against the advisory votes of both neighborhood groups. Local politicians and the Licensing Board are often caught in the middle of the two neighborhood groups when NEWNC and NEWRA vote in differing directions. For example, the groups disagreed recently regarding The Living Room’s request for a 2:00 a.m. closing hour which will come to the Licensing Board on May 11, 2011. NEWNC voted in support of the 2:00 a.m. closing while NEWRA opposed it. Councilor LaMattina has consistently supported licenses to 1:00 a.m., but no later. State Rep. Michlewitz was previously NEWNC President where he established a good neighbor policy limit for midnight closings on new licenses.
Abutters Michael and Angela Aquilino spoke in opposition of the Caffe Lil Italy license at the hearing. “Ten years ago, this license was first granted at this location under political influence over neighborhood concerns,” said Mr. Aquilino. “There were years of problems, including all-night parties. It is an unsuitable location.” Mrs. Aquilino added, “Many abutters cannot be here because they are seniors or caretakers. The noise level is not tolerable. We have seen people urinating and defecating in the courtyard. That’s no way to live.” Mr. Aquilino also said he was concerned about “North End creep” where something starts in an area and it tends to expand and creep into surrounding areas. At an April 26th NEWRA sub-committee meeting, he said “If Caffe Lil Italy gets it, then Dino’s, Cozy Corner and Starbucks will want them next.”
While opposed to the license, both Mr. and Mrs. Aquilino said they respect new owner Carla Gomes and complimented her other North End restaurants, Antico Forno and Terramia, also on Salem Street. Ms. Gomes recently purchased Caffe Lil Italy from her brother, Stephen Aquilino, who previously sold the liquor license to Cafe Nuovo, down the street. Ms. Gomes is now applying for a new license.
As a concession to neighbors, Attorney Daniel Toscano explained that Ms. Gomes changed the closing hour request to 9:00 p.m. from 11:00 p.m. in response to concerns regarding late-night noise. Licensing Board member Suzanne Iannella did not agree with the change to the earlier closing hour. “When I think of a night in the North End, 9:00 p.m. seems early for those wanting a Sambuca after dinner,” said Iannella.
City Councilor Sal LaMattina said, “I speak in favor of Ms. Carla Gomes. I am very familiar with the shop and the location. She runs two very good businesses in the North End and whenever the neighborhood needs something, she is there. The 9:00 p.m. change shows she cares about the residents because she is a part of the North End. I think she would do a good job with an 11:00 p.m. or 1:00 a.m. closing.”
“I speak in support of this proposal, with the understanding that we are under a self-imposed neighborhood alcohol license cap,” said State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz. “Carla puts much more into the neighborhood than she takes out and I cannot say that about every business owner in the North End,” continued Michlewitz. “She runs a great fundraiser for Joslin’s Diabetes. This coffee shop could use a little more activity and serve a need in the neighborhood.”
In addition to the political support, Steve Ayers, Vicar of the Old North Church submitted a letter of support saying, “Their patrons typically have one drink with coffee or a snack and then move on to the next Freedom Trail site. I am unaware of any problems associated with liquor being served in the store.”
Complicating the issue, Licensing Board member Suzanne Iannella advised that there are currently no alcohol licenses available. “I think there is a waiting list, as a matter of fact,” said Iannella. As a result, the application is deferred for 30 days. If a beer/wine license becomes available in this time frame, Caffe Lil Italy may be eligible to receive it, as would other Boston establishments.
Notably, Volle Nolle on Hanover St., has also applied for a new beer/wine license with a Licensing Board hearing date of May 18, 2011. A resident who asked to remain anonymous said that both cafes’ are seeking the beer/wine license that is likely to be released/sold by La Famiglia Giorgio’s, which recently received a new all-alcohol license pending approval from the Alcohol Beverages Control Commission. However, the owners of La Familgia Giorgio’s previously stated they would only sell the license outside the North End. Any new license that become available could go anywhere in Boston. Applicants can also re-apply after 30 days to remain eligible new licenses that become available.