WOONSOCKET — When Evo “Curly” Donnini christened it “Hampton Court” in 1972, the upper deck of his famous Ciro’s Restaurant was already in a time warp — in a good way.
The late founder of Ciro’s envisioned Hampton Court as a sort of Tudor-inspired rendition of a medieval, English castle, circa King Edward III, and he spared no expense in getting the details right. He covered the walls with lavish, oak paneling imported from England, hung hand-crafted chandeliers from the ceiling and plunked French crystal on the tables beside sterling silver dinner utensils.
For good measure, he commissioned a realistic-looking, life-size knight in shining armor to watch over the kingdom, which is only accessible via a circular oak staircase from the main level.
“I wanted people in Woonsocket to know that there is really nothing like this in the East,” he once told a reporter for The Call.
Donnino, who died last spring at the age of 93, had still presided over the museum-like empire well into his 80s, when he sold the landmark restaurant at the foot of Cato Hill to another iconic restaurant family from Woonsocket, the Savinis.
They resurrected Donnini’s creation as Ciro’s Tavern on Cherry with a winning combo of pub-style food and a warm, family atmosphere that’s carving a new niche for itself in the city’s increasingly competitive restaurant business.
Sadly, however, when the Savinis took over, they had little choice but to close off Hampton Court while they concentrated on upgrading the main level of Ciro’s. And since then, this veritable relic of city lore has been hidden from public view, a timepiece within a timepiece.
Hampton Court officially welcomes guests today for the first time since 2003 as the Savinis mark the occasion with a “grand reopening” celebration The event starts at 5 p.m. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, free wine and food samplings, plus a tip o’ the chain-mail helmet to Donnino.
“He was way ahead of his time,” says Gina Savini. “Everything he did was unique and authentic and that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”
Savini is the daughter of Roger and Micheline Savini, the founders of Savini’s Restaurant on Rathbun Street. They run Ciro’s as another family business today with daughters Gina and Jill, and Jill’s husband Matt Moylan.
As they led a visitor on a tour recently, Gina said that when the family took over Ciro’s, they bought not just a restaurant, but a legend. Donnino is reputed to have entertained mobsters and politicians from all over New England in the restaurant, which he fashioned from an old house and customized with secret doors and hidden compartments. Though he and his late wife, Martha, maintained an address in Lincoln, they lived much of the time in an apartment above the restaurant, in an area that Matt Moylan is now converting into office space for Ciro’s.
As he surveys Hampton Court from a balcony Donnino envisioned as a mini-stage for violinists, Moylan marvels at the sheer energy of the man who founded the restaurant at an age when some are already contemplating retirement. The restaurant opened in 1962, and Donnini didn’t unveil Hampton Court as a new attraction until 10 years later.
“He was probably in his late 50s when he took on this project,” says Moylan.
The structure that houses the restaurant, located at the corner of Cato and Cherry streets, was originally built as a home by the Mee family in 1893. The neighborhood, one of the oldest in the downtown proper, is recorded in the National Register of Historic Places as Cato Hill, and is marked by a collection of quaint colonial and Greek Revival homes.
One of the biggest residential structures in Cato Hill, the restaurant housed a liquor store on the ground floor and a boarding house upstairs in Mee’s day.
By World War I, says Gina Savini, the bar became “Uncle’s Cafe” and the boarding house became a brothel.
The Savinis don’t mind playing up the site’s colorful past, which is memorialized on the take-out menu for those too young, perhaps, to remember when nightlife vice thrived as off-the-books business in Woonsocket.
“Sailors would dock in Newport and travel to Woonsocket for the gambling, bars and prostitution,” the menu says.
Ciro’s was a kind of second career for Donnino, who built a robust business selling paint before he opened the restaurant. A wine enthusiast, Donnino built a vault-like wine-cellar in the basement of Ciro’s where he stored imports from Italy and France worth thousands of dollars a bottle. In one of the early menus for the restaurant, he offered a 1929 Chateau Mouton Rothschild for $1,500.
He still had the bottle in 1985, when it was worth over $8,000. By the time he sold the restaurant, he told a reporter he had a collection of fine wines worth about $50,000. Most of it was gone by the time the Savinis acquired the restaurant, but there are still a few bottles left behind.
Some members of the Savini family think Donnino’s wife may have left behind something even more personal than the vintage vessels: Gina says her sister swears she saw an apparition of a “heavyset woman wearing a muumuu” wafting through the restaurant one day.
“Evo’s wife was known to wear a muumuu,” she says.
Ghosts in Hampton Court? Who knows.
For now, plans are to use this eerily atmospheric venue for murder-mystery meals, dinner theater and seasonal wine dinners. And if anyone with motion sensors and infrared thermometers wants to come in to search for the spirit of Martha Donnini in the building where she died, well, the doors are open, says Savini.