fb-pixel Skip to main content
RI FOOD & DINING

From mafia hideouts to secrets only restaurant owners on Federal Hill know

“These walls all have ears. They have all listened over the years,” one owner said. “If only they could speak of the secrets they hold.”

Furniture is stored in the top floor space of Joe Marzilli's Old Canteen Italian Restaurant on Atwells Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island. The Federal Hill institution, which has operated for over 60 years, is being put up for sale.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to explore the upstairs levels of Joe Marzilli’s Old Canteen, the iconic restaurant with a storied past. Sal Marzilli, the current owner and Joe’s son, has been working in the kitchen since he was a teenager, and recently announced that he put the property and building up for sale.

The pink decor, kitchen equipment, and chandeliers were all original, but what struck me was Marzilli saying that, as far as he could recall, no reporter had ever explored and written about the apartments upstairs.

”These walls all have ears. They have all listened over the years,” Marzilli told me. “If only they could speak of the secrets they hold.” For example, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the longtime crime boss, ran his operation out of the nearby Coin-O-Matic (now a smoke shop, with a statue of a man in an all-white suit and top hat sitting and smoking a cigar in the window).

The colors of the Italian flag decorate the center line of Atwells Avenue in the Federal Hill neighborhood in Providence.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

But Marzilli told me when his father ran the restaurant, Patriarca used the apartments above the Old Canteen to host card games for him and his crew or when “there was something private going on.”

Advertisement



When I visited the second-floor apartment, I saw an old record player, boxes of papers, and a leather couch. The original cash register was sitting on the floor, and there were stacks of dishes and chairs from the restaurant. An old stove sits in the galley kitchen along with a typewriter and old glass cleaner that had once been at the bar. The apartment was closed to the public, as it always has been.

But the Old Canteen, which sits right behind the golden archway on Atwells Avenue, is not the only spot in the neighborhood that has secrets.

Andino’s prides itself on being the restaurant the “rat pack” would choose as a hangout (its original owner, the late Andino Merola, was a “freelancer” for the mafia).

Advertisement



The upstairs at Saje Kitchen, an American restaurant with a distinct southern twist, on Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill in Providence, R.I.Alexa Gagosz

I recently went to Saje Kitchen, also located on Atwells, which Jessica Wilkin opened during the height of the pandemic. On a tour of the building, I was led up the stairs, where the walls are covered in vibrant graffiti art, to their lounge. That’s where locals connected to the Patriarca crime family would hold meetings to talk about business, decades earlier. A door in the corner of the lounge opens up to a private party space that could comfortably seat about 30. It has its own bar, and is decorated in silver hues and the building’s original, exposed brick.

Behind that bar, though, is a thick door that reminded me of an elevator shaft. Today it’s used for bar storage. But it only locks from the inside, making it another spot where those who did not want to be found could hide.

Know a local restaurant with an intriguing back story? Tell me about it: Alexa.Gagosz@globe.com.

Keep an eye on Food & Dining in Rhode Island for more. Because everyone’s gotta eat!

This story first appeared in Globe Rhode Island’s Food & Dining newsletter, a free weekly email about Rhode Island’s restaurant industry that also contains information about local events, Q&As with chefs, dining guides, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail each Thursday, you can sign up here.

Advertisement




Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.