In Letters to Family Lovecraft gives an actual address for an Italian cafe he frequented with Kirk during the Clinton St. period. The cafe offered not only delicious spaghetti and cheese and a very friendly Italian owner, but also long-time lap-service by two delightful ‘tiger’ kittens.
Greenwich Village, where at #17 (not #10!) Downing St we found the little returned tiger-kitty, who sat in Grandpa’s lap just as serenely as one of those Tilden and Thurber kitties during the entire meal of native Italian spaghetti — for which Kirk insisted on paying” (May 1925)
These kittens were an attraction mentioned on several visits, and it appears to have been a regular haunt. “Tilden and Thurber” is the Providence based Tilden-Thurber Co, Inc., at that time having “miniature kitties” as part of their range of kitsch giftware. Lovecraft’s aunt enquired if Kirk might like one.
Kirk & I take a perennial delight in two small tiger kittens in an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. They know us, & we each have one which we habitually hold. Kirk calls his Lucrezia Borgia [the infamous poisoner], & I call mine Giambattista Tintoretto [old name for the famous Baroque painter].
Loveman and Kleiner sometimes joined them there. Occasionally Lovecraft and Loveman dined there without Kirk, at a later point when there was a Loveman-Kirk feud. He states that “the Downing Street joint is weak” on the coffee, which was a drawback.
In September Kirk adopted one of the cafe’s kitties, to be delivered October, and we thus learn more of the place from Lovecraft…
… he is an orphaned waif, who strayed into Kirk’s favourite Downing Street restaurant just at the time when the old lady cat was nursing her own tiger brood. Madam Tabitha, in generous mood, added the forlorn mite to her household without the least hesitation … these Downing St. Italians cherish their felidae with an almost Egyptian tenderness which warms the heart! No kitten has ever been killed in that restaurant, but with each new brood a canvas of patrons is made with a view to providing homes. … the homes [have] been always forthcoming …
Kirk’s Diary shows he could not wait and Lovecraft’s letters reveal that he instead tried to adopt a purloined alley cat… “the darlingest kitten vot I’ve adopted … white mostly with a black tail” (Kirk), and he jokes about starting a cattery. This new alley-adoption quickly ran away. Kirk seems to have been ill-fated with cats. A year later, the cat he finally settled on was run over and killed by a car.
Kirk’s Diary does not, so far as I can tell from a quick re-read, take an interest in describing or naming the cheaper New York eatieries or their cuisine, and all we get is an occasional “lunched with so-and-so”.
Lovecraft calls the place an “Italian-ordinary”, presumably meaning it was a cheaper and more everyday Italian restaurant than several others he would visit with Sonia such as the Taormina. His regular everyday cafe near his room in Brooklyn he calls “The Tiffany” or “Tiffany Cafeteria” and it was evidently a place that young hoodlums and hardened gangsters would also frequent. He also frequents “John’s” near Willoughby St. for Sunday meals, on which more tomorrow. And he often calls at the nearby Scotch Bakery on the corner of Court St and Schermerhorn. With the “gang” there are sometimes art-world coffee places to hang out in, such as the ‘Double R’.
17 Downing Street clearly means the Greenwich Village street rather than the street of the same name in Brooklyn (near Fulton St.), since this is a Kirk eatery. A little later in his letters Lovecraft talks about exploring the slums section between “the 4th Avenue and Downing Street”, which would make sense for a night-time tour of Greenwich Village. At this time Kirk had a new shop at No. 97 Fourth Avenue (page 288) and “the 4th Avenue and Downing Street” area thus becomes a prime target of more explorations into Greenwich’s ancient alleyways and hoary courtyards with “the gang”.
As one can see here, Downing Street was not as salubrious as today…
No. 17 is the dark shopfront three doors along. The gigantic Locatelli ‘Italian cheese’ sign seen here would likely have existed in the mid 1920s and would have naturally attracted the attention of wanderers in the small hours. Especially Lovecraft, who adored his cheese.
[I] Like Italian cooking very much — especially spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce, utterly engulfed in a snowbank of grated Parmesan cheese.
Here we move a little closer. There appears to be a two-part junk shop adjoining No. 17, part storage garage / old clothes-rack and part a smaller and more secure junk shop with a show-window.
Here 17 is more central…
But there’s a problem… another photo from 1940s.nyc lets us read the shopfront lettering. No. 17 is labelled as “Cabinet Maker” in the front window, and of course that’s a natural adjunct to a junk shop. We can even see what appears to be new-made chairs stacked near the window.
My feeling is then the next door section is actually the cafe in the picture, which makes the cafe No. 19-21. It looks like one, though there is no sign visible.
What of his exclamation “(not #10!)”? Evidently he intends his aunt to visit without him, and is giving her the address and recommendation without actually needing to state he is doing so. She is quite familiar with Greenwich Village and capable of visiting it herself. One possible explanation might be that the cafe was indeed once small and cheap and located at #17, but some 15 years later (seen above) had found success and moved next door to larger premises.
But it is far more likely that there was a simple transcription error in the Lovecraft letter. “17” was actually written as “19”, in which case his comment “(not #10!)” suddenly makes a lot more sense. His “9” might look like “0”, and there was and is no “10” in the street. This actually seems the most likely explanation to me, at least without a palaeographic scrutiny of the original letter.
A 1925 Italian trade directory of New York has… “Prota, A. & Co., 19 Downing St., New York”, and another directory adds “importer of foodstuffs” as the trade and elsewhere distinguishes Brooklyn addresses with “Brooklyn”. Hence this is not the Brooklyn Downing St. Also in 1925, a “Fratelli Prota” is granted a patent for peeled canned tomatoes, on behalf of “Prota, Angelina & Co., doing business as Fratelli Prota”. Thus the Downing Street eatery is likely to have been “Fratelli’s” and owned by the Prota family.
Today the street is very gentrified, and as we see here No. 17 has a stylish new brick frontage (presumably unappealing to graffiti vandals and inimical to drug-dealer stickers). But No. 19 was, until recently, a discreet wine-bar… and it may still be so. It’s the red door. Nice to think that you might still eat in New York City where Lovecraft and his circle once ate.