|The Prince of Brook Street|
Hustling back to Providence, and I'm late again. If there is one thing I should have learned while eating at, living above, and working inside
Loui's Family Restaurant, it's that the 3 p.m. closing is every bit as certain as the cozy charm within its doors. So at 3:07 on an afternoon this past July, I'm prepared not to get my grilled-cheese-and-tomato fix. I'm not prepared, though, for the prematurely darkened windows and the tuft of flowers lying on the familiar, Astroturfed stoop. I'm not prepared for the poster on the door that says, simply, "R.I.P. Louis Gianfrancesco, 1921-1999."
The news of Louis's death on July 15 came as a heartfelt blow, both because of the warmth and warm food he'd served to so many of us and because it's hard to imagine Brown without the anchor of Loui's diner (the spelling is from the sign outside) on Brook Street. After all, Louis once reflected that he could sell the "Louis's McMuffin" in good faith, because "I've been around longer than McDonalds."
In the more than fifty years since emigrating to Providence from Abruzzi, Louis Gianfrancesco served eggs with an edge and creamed coffee with a gruff laugh. And while a well-fried breakfast is not something for everyone, Loui's has long been the place where everybody knows not just your name, but how you take your coffee: straight, sugared, or styrofoamed. Newcomers are inevitably and immediately struck by Loui's intimacy. A shrine to the changing styles and comforting consistencies that have marked the Brown community since World War II, Loui's walls frame a colorful collage of yellowing Polaroids, all of them dated mementos left by diners and employees alike. But on the day after his death, I'm left to stare at a new photograph that greets me at the closed door, a poignantly humble black-and-white that left me to conjure my own snapshots of the man and his menu.
For a man who came to this country with little, Louis worked with (a not unquiet) determination and a commitment to match every opportunity with sufficient return. A shrewd businessman who, had he been greedy, could have profited hugely from generations of eager Brown and RISD students, he chose, instead, to live by a different code. For as long as I can remember, the Bluefish Platter has not gone up in price, the number-two special has set you back a grand $2.60, and Louis never saw fit to charge those of us who rented the apartment above his grill more than 150 dollars per person per month, even though breakfast was on the house with every monthly rent check, and electricity ran free off the restaurant's feed. That's how things ran in the Gianfrancesco fold - simply, sufficiently, and suffused with the sense that hard work and favors go hand in hand.
Writing a senior thesis in the apartment above the diner meant that after late hours of dueling with computers, we could drop down into the restaurant in the early morning hours and have a cup of Joe or a glass of Miller and help Johnny fire up the grill before getting some sleep ourselves. On Memorial Day 1992, Louis topped his own open-door policy, surprising a table of still-sleepless and somewhat saucy graduates-to-be with a tray full of champagne bottles. Rumor has it that there is videotape somewhere of Louis grumbling words of congratulations to one and all, topping off glasses of bubbly while barking that his wife, Nina, had left the light on in the back. Less surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Louis made an annual tradition of this - on the house, of course - priceless graduation gifts that will long survive him.
Loui's diner stood for nothing if not community, so it comes as no surprise that the community lives on, not only in son Johnny's continued stewardship behind the grill (he even serves a "Tofu Scramble" these days), but through the family of strangers who've shared this ritual engagement through the years. What the future holds for the restaurant is uncertain; with campus construction soon to be under way for a new Watson Institute nearby, the grill may not long outlive its founder. Who knows? But Brown history has not moved on yet: During the week following Louis's death, friends and strangers approached me, in person and via e-mail, to recall the man. For one alumnus, Louis was the best of Yoda. For a former Brown parent, he was old-world lasagna served up with class. For me, Louis Gianfrancesco was a side dish of care, salted with pride and an acid tongue. I miss him.
After finishing his Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard, Eric Wilson looks forward to returning to College Hill to teach Shakespeare in the spring.