Auld Lang Syne: Last call for Campo Enoteca

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Closing time for Ed Aloise and Claudia Rippee as they turn the page on ‘Republic of Campo’ on New Year’s Eve 2022. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – It’s hard not to feel sad as I belly up to the bar at Camp Enoteca one last time. Owners Ed Aloise and Claudie Rippee are with me, taking a break from kitchen prep for an exit interview earlier this week. Tonight will be their last dinner service – New Year’s Eve 2022, for  “Auld Lang Syne” and all of that sentimental stuff.

But Ed and Claudia assure me that whatever tears there may be, they are mostly happy tears for the 40+ years that they’ve put themselves out there as restaurateurs, opening their doors in one location or another to new guests, friends and regulars to join them in this adventure.

Long before the ball drops in Times Square on Dec. 31, Ed and Claudia will have dimmed the lights and said their last official goodbye. They are fully booked and the final dinner seating is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. If their New Year’s Eve guests linger over drinks and memories, well, then they will make good use of all the leftover alcohol.

They vowed not to skimp on food, or run themselves out of menu items as they were winding down. However, the outpouring of guests hungry for one last taste of Campo helped to clean out the pantry shelves in the last week.

The decision to switch gears for 2023 wasn’t rash. Ed says somewhere mid-2022 he and Claudia made the decision to close, settling on the last day of the year a few months ago. Their General Manager Peter Macone, who’s been with them for years and an integral part of Campo’s success, “had something burning inside of him” to follow his own dream and is working on opening a brewery in the next year with a partner on Granite Street.

Claudia says you don’t find another Peter by posting an ad on Indeed. They thought maybe he could retrofit the restaurant into a brewery but the logistics were not right. Instead he will take some items and mementos from the restaurant for his own fresh start sometime in the coming year.

In March they will be celebrating 40 years of marriage in Paris, where they rent an apartment. But the immediate plan is for Claudia to continue growing her art and photography business while Ed will get back into restaurant consulting, something he started years ago – and he plans to continue writing his food blog right here on the Ink Link (stay tuned for more on that!)

Speaking of where it all started, Ed says the two met in the 1970s while working at The Walrus at the mall in Boulder, Colorado. He was an education and history major with a teaching degree working as a bartender. She was a cocktail waitress.

“It was an over-the-counter love affair,” Ed says. He worked his way up the restaurant chain into management and the two of them moved back and forth between Colorado and New York City, eventually ending up at Cafe Fiorello across from Lincoln Center where Ed was manager for a little while,  and where the couple’s love for Italian cuisine blossomed.

“That was a trip,” Ed says. “It was during the first subway strike and we ended up actually living inside the restaurant. It was insane.”

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You eat with your eyes first, and Campo was always big on presentation – like for this charcuterie board. Photo/Carol Robidoux

The guests and servers could get there because they could walk, but the cooks all lived in the Bronx, says Ed. “We paired the menu down and it’s where I learned to cook, because I was cooking.”

Another stint in Colorado as a general manager played out before they returned east to Gloucester, Mass., where Ed was going to open a restaurant with a partner. When that fell through  Ed’s business plan was picked up by a company in Manchester called Hospitality Holdings, and the 30-year love affair with Queen City diners began, no matter what they were doing – Italia Ristorante, Three Chestnuts, River Club, and finally, Cafe Pavone – Italian for “peacock” – where Cotton is now, their first project together after Hospitality Holdings crashed and burned.

“We were the first to open a restaurant in the millyard. It was 1989 and we had to get a variance from the Board of Aldermen.

“It was still zoned for manufacturing only, says Claudia. The city thought we were crazy.”

But it turned out to be a hit. “An instant success,” says Ed.

On Jan. 1, 1994, they opened Milltown Grill at the new Manchester Airport, asked by the city to operate a concession there after a previous plan fell through.

“We put that business plan together in three months after Chuck Rolecek backed out of putting a steakhouse in there,” Claudia says.

The first few years were slow until Southwest came to the restaurant, then things exploded and remained a bustling business until Southwest departed.

“In 2000 we sold Pavone, we still had Milltown Grill, and I had a consulting company, which I’ll be rejuvenating in the new year, and that’s when we opened up Republic, in 2010,” Ed says.

How they managed to plant a second restaurant just a city block away on Elm Street was just another one of those things, says Ed.

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Republic closed in 2020 and the menu was combined with Campo Enoteca.

They had a core group of employees who’d been with them for a decade or more and were on board for an expansion, and so when the owner of the space that was to become Republic wanted the current tenant out, Campo Enoteca – Italian for wine field – was born. Both restaurants brought something quite different to downtown Manchester. Farm-to-table fresh foods that were locally sourced and a feeling that you were eating somewhere you’d never been before, where the ingredients, the dishes, the presentation all created a new language for elevated dining.

“And then the plague hit,” says Ed. COVID really shifted things, and although they tried to sustain both Republic and Campo, it became too much.

“Because of the way we do business and the level of product we had we needed a certain volume for Republic to stay open. And with the constraints of COVID which forced distancing and reduced capacity, it became unsustainable.

“Our lease was up and we left. The good thing about it was both stores had so much staff, so it was easy to sit down with Peter and decided to put Campo and Republic in the same kitchen,” says Ed. Just a little maneuvering the kitchen was all it took to open the doors to Republic at Campo in May of 2020 with a blend of menus from both eateries.

“Like we just switched from Republic’s arancini to Campo’s arancini a few weeks ago,” Claudia says, explaining that one is tomato-sauced based, the other peppercorn cream-based, and both have a following.

“We weren’t going to pair down our menu after the plague. We opened the doors with our full blackboard, same fish, same menu and we hit the ground running,” says Ed.

They both insist COVID had nothing to do with their decision to bow out of the restaurant business. Claudia, who turned 70 in July, and Ed, who just turned 69, say they have loved the ride, but are ready to shift gears and enjoy some new vistas.

“We need a little time – even with good mobility, there’s an end-game coming,” says Claudia.

“While we’re still young and good-looking we thought it was a good time for a new chapter,” adds Ed.

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Flashback to 2014: Republic owner and chef, Edward Aloise, with a fresh batch of locally-grown oyster mushrooms.

The constancy of being a restaurateur means sacrifices and responsibilities unlike many other businesses, and Ed and Claudia never minded getting up early or working late, dealing with staffing issues or kitchen drama. He was master of the kitchen, she was responsible for the incredible baked goods. Customers became loyal regulars and even friends over their 30-plus years in the city. It required consistency and hospitality.

“I keep telling people for 35 years one of the things that has been driving me is that every single day no two days have been the same. They’re not always good – and sometimes they’re horrible,”  but it has kept things exciting and motivational, he says.

“And I can’t sit still,” says Claudia. “So it’s great that we’re always moving around and we’re making things – things that go away because people are eating them,” says Claudia, a bit of an inside joke for a prolific photographic artist who has created countless oversized photographs in various techniques. While too many end up “piled in the closet,” there has been a rotation of her graffiti stills adorning the restaurant’s built-in gallery walls. She will continue to travel which inspires her photography and feeds the creative beast with fodder for what she hopes will continue to be opportunities for showing her work, with a studio in Concord she works from with friends.

It is their mutual creativity and energy that has kept their partnership strong and been key to their success.

“Working with your spouse is a challenge, but we’ve had boundaries – this is my stuff, this is her stuff and this is the stuff in the middle – and we’ve always had a partner, like Peter in this case, who brings balance,” says Ed.

Providing a segue to honor their middle-man, Peter Macone, who was truly the face of Campo, says Ed.

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Ed Aloise, left, and Peter Macone outside Campo after the pandemic forced them to combine Republic and Campo. Photo/Carolyn Choate

“His sense of hospitality takes my product and Claudia’s product to a whole different level. With lots of experience as a server, Ed and Claudia hired him eight years ago giving him his first management job, and Peter took off like a duck to water.

“He decided he wanted to stay in the restaurant business, and you take a pay cut going from a good server to a manager but he focused on it and adjusted his life to the point where he reached that next level. He’s amazing,” Claudia says.

“And we wouldn’t have had the success we have right now if he wasn’t here,” Ed adds.

The pandemic cut their staff in more than half, from about 55 down to 20, but all the hiring and training, front and back of house, has been Peter’s territory – and their staff is another important part of their success.

“My philosophy has always been very interactive, from a hospitality aspect,  two hellos, two goodbyes, and two thank-yous.  Peter’s taken that to an entirely different level,” Ed says.

“Pre-covid he hugged just about everyone who walked in this door,” Claudia adds. “He certainly hugged an incredible number of people this week.”

As for what’s next, Ed and Claudia are being patient. They’re looking for a buyer and Ed says they’ve had some “tire-kickers” come through. “Right now it’s Christmastime, so we’re not going to do anything until the new year. But we have a great landlord and so we’re not going to let just anyone come in and open a regular bar.”

If someone wanted to buy the brand and reopen as Campo, they could hit the ground running with “incredible volume,” Ed says. “They just have to know what they’re doing.” And the Campo loyalists would have to accept change.

“We’ve always known people liked us and bonded with us, but over the past two weeks people have been so incredible,” says Ed. Like the guy who came in the other day and told him a story about how when they operated Cafe Pavone, how he and his pregnant wife had a reservation the day before she was due, but she went into labor on the day of their reservation.

“So Ed brought their dinner to the hospital – tablecloth and all,” says Claudia. “That kid must be about 27 by now.”

“I didn’t even remember that story,” Ed says. “People are coming in with lots of stories – and all the emails and texts we’re getting not just from customers but from ex-employees, thanking us for being mentors.”

Whatever happens next, there will be food and photography and time for reconnecting with friends. Ending on a night of celebration and the anticipation of a New Year feels right and, just like every New Year’s Eve, there is always a touch of melancholy over things we leave behind, and anticipation for what the future has in store.

“It was better to leave when everything was going strong, I think,” Claudia says. “It will feel similar to closing for COVID, like we did in March of 2020, only different.”


 

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About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!