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NORTH END

Serving cups of small comfort

Coffee shop prepares for last call

Email|Print| Text size + By Joyce Pellino Crane
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

It was a defection from a different coffee shop that led David Bartsch and his small contingent of coffee drinkers to Caffe Graffiti 13 years ago.

The landmark watering hole has been serving espressos for as long as many North Enders can recall, but the group of regulars became loyal to the family-run restaurant during the 1990s and have never wavered.

"There's got to be 20, maybe 30, people who go there every day," said Bartsch. "We're bound at the hip for some reason."

Bartsch said he's on a first-name basis with almost all of the regulars, who range from 20 months to 80 years old. These days, they're kibitzing over where they'll land after Graffiti shuts its doors, which could be as early as Friday.

"We're trying to figure out what to do in the meantime," said Bartsch, who gets coffee and croissants there with his wife and young daughter. "I think we're all just letting it happen and seeing where it will end up."

Meanwhile, Luigi DeMarco, whose father, Umberto, 67, owns Graffiti, is on the lookout for another location.

"The restaurant is more than just a cafe," he said. "It's like a family room. It's where everybody gathers. I've seen children grow up. I've seen couples meet there. I met my wife there. My sister met her husband there."

DeMarco said he knew Bartsch's wife was pregnant the day she ordered decaffeinated coffee. Little Inga, now 20 months, inspires exclamations of joy every morning when Bartsch, his wife, Sveta, and Inga walk in.

"People like Inga because she's so friendly," he said.

As in most stories, Graffiti's has a villain - albeit a reluctant one.

Its landlord, Damien DiPaola, expects to start a restaurant on the prime Hanover Street site this winter.

DiPaola said Umberto DeMarco had been operating on extended one-year leases for the past five years at rates well below market value. DiPaola said his late father and DeMarco were close friends.

"I kept giving him another year out of courtesy and respect," said DiPaola, who said Graffiti's final lease ends this month. "I'm saddened by it, too. I really am."

"There's nothing I can do," said Umberto DeMarco, who added that he is still hoping to stay open through Christmas. "We'll see what happens."

DiPaola owned and operated the 140-seat Carmelina's restaurant in Hadley for 22 years, until he sold it in August. He said he now wants to operate a smaller restaurant with about 40 seats in the bustling North End.

He's planning a tapas-style menu, with small samplings of Italian cuisine served from morning to late night.

"It's going to be heavy Italian influence, but I'm going to incorporate local foods," he said.

DiPaola's links to the North End stretch back 40 years. His parents, Carmela and the late Domenic, started Caffe dello Sport in 1967 at 307 Hanover St., and purchased the property in 1974. In 1982, they sold the coffee shop operation, but not the property, to a new owner, who moved the Caffe dello Sport to 308 Hanover, where it remains.

The space at 307 Hanover eventually came to be called Caffe Graffiti. It passed through a few more hands before Umberto DeMarco took over in 1991. DeMarco owns the coffee shop operation, but pays rent to DiPaola.

Umberto left Italy in 1967, and a year later brought his wife, Lucia, to the North End from their hometown of Chiusano di San Domenico, in Avellino Province.

Today, Caffe Graffiti is truly a family operation. Luigi DeMarco, 37, said he, his sister Antonella, 35, and her husband, Angelo Martiniello, all work there. Younger sister Cynthia, 29, met her husband, Vincent Penta, at Graffiti.

Five years ago, after Shauna Colafella started coming to Graffiti with girlfriends, Luigi took one look and told her he was going to marry her.

"She just laughed," he said. "I basically asked her to go out every day for a year. I'm persistent."

Their first child is due Christmas Eve. The couple recently moved from the North End to Woburn.

But Bartsch and family are settled into their Salem Street condominium, from which it takes four minutes, across four North End blocks, to reach Caffe Graffiti.

He said he used to frequent another cafe until he got into a dispute with the owner over the service. Since then, it's been all Graffiti.

"That's where the people go who we relate to," he said. "Fewer tourists, more regulars."

Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at crane@globe.com.

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