Lombardo’s Restaurant closed New Year’s Eve 2018.
Charley (Salvatore) Lombardo was the youngest of 3 sons from Martone, Calabria in southern Italy. His father died when he was a child; the remaining family, including his mother, worked as farm laborers. His older brothers left for America and sent passage money for Charley. He joined them in Milford, Mass. in the early 1900s when he was in his young teens.
The brothers then came to Albany. Charley worked as a porter and then as a bartender in James O’Donnell’s saloon at 560 Broadway (where Tricentennial Park is today).
In 1915 the Sons of Italy acquired a building at 118 Madison; Charley opened his own restaurant/saloon in the building in 1916 with $300 he’d managed to save. He said later he worked 18 to 20 hours a day because 2 friends had co-signed the lease and he needed to keep up his end of the bargain. In 1918 Charley was drafted into Army, and served a short time before World War I ended. On his return, he picked up the pieces and moved forward.
In 1920 Charley moved the business across the street to 121 Madison Ave. (into what had previously been the offices of the Italian Consul and the Albany branch of the Bank of Naples) and established the Madison Avenue Lunch. (He’d purchased the building the previous year.)
Later that year he married Anna Manganaro, from another Italian immigrant family, and they started a new life together over the restaurant. While the family thrived over the next dozen years, the business held on in troubled times– Prohibition had begun in January, 1920
Much of Albany thought Prohibition was stupid and wrong. It was “intolerance run amok” (the “Albany Times Union”) and on a more basic level it cost jobs. But the city was on the verge of coming under Democratic control, which it did in 1921 when William Hackett was elected mayor. The boss of the Democratic Party, who happened to own the Hedrick Brewery on Central Ave., paid only lip service to Prohibition. (Albany was a pivotal link in the nationwide bootlegging chain.)* Establishments like the Madison Avenue Lunch in Albany survived the Prohibition years. As far as we know Lombardo’s wasn’t a “speakeasy”, just a place where a tired man (or woman) could find a brief respite after a hard day at work.
But that’s not to say the federal agents charged with enforcing the “dry act” turned a blind eye. As we look through old newspapers it appears that the premises of 121 Madison Ave. were raided at least 5 times, mostly in the years 1930 and 1931. Charley Lombardo was never among those arrested. We’ve been told he told he did provide bail for employees who were busted, and they never served time (wink wink, nod nod). O Albany.
FDR campaigned on promise to end Prohibition laws and on March 22, 1933, less than a month after his inauguration, he signed the Cullen–Harrison Act permitting the sale of 3.2 percent beer and wine. Smart entrepreneurs like Charley Lombardo were ready to go. In summer 1933 he opened a newly re-furbished and expanded restaurant at 119-121 Madison Ave. re-named “Lombardo’s” (By December 1933 all federal Prohibition laws were repealed.)
In the 13 year “dry spell” Anna and Charley had 4 children – Pat (Pasquale), Mary, Tillie (Matilda) and Charles, Jr. – known as Bill. The new restaurant was a hit – the murals you see today – dark wood trim booths, the decorative pressed tin ceiling and the black and white floor tiles were the height of 1930s splendor. Charley was gracious and genial host, and the food was wonderful.
Over the next 6 decades the business thrived, serving great food at affordable prices, in the midst of its restrained Art Deco splendor. (If it isn’t broke, why fix it?) Just once, in the 1950s, Charley experimented – opening Lombardo’s Cafeteria on South Pearl St. near the corner of Madison Ave. (It was a time when downtown Albany, including South Pearl, was teeming with businesses and shoppers and the Cafeteria was designed to attract those with only a brief time for lunch – but the Cafeteria closed in a couple of years.)
By this time Lombardo’s was truly a family business – the Lombardo children and some of their spouses entered the business, as well as an array of in-laws and cousins AND Marge Lawlor. Marge spent almost 50 years as a waitress at Lombardo’s and became part of the family. Times changed, children grew up, but Marge was always there.
Charley understood the value of community – he was active in his church, the Elks, the Southend Merchants Association, and the Chamber of Commerce He was a faithful supporter of the Roma Intangible Lodge #215 and the Sons of Italy, and a mainstay of Little Italy’s festivals and celebrations.
When Charley Lombardo, the patriarch, died in 1956 the restaurant continued to be successful. (Anna passed away in 1958.) The children had learned the lessons of great hospitality and great food from their parents. Jimmy (Vincent) Baumbaca, another Italian immigrant, started in the kitchen in the late 1930s. He married Mary Lombardo and remained a fixture in the kitchen. After Pat died suddenly in 1971 Jimmy was also the face of the front of house, channeling Charley’s smile and affability.
Despite the gutting of much of downtown Albany’s Little Italy for the Empire State Plaza and the diaspora of Albany’s Italian population, Lombardo’s thrived. It became a place to celebrate family and traditions – birthdays, baby showers, wedding rehearsal dinners, re-unions, wedding anniversaries, high school and college graduations, first communions and confirmations, engagement parties. The milestones of Albany life were commemorated at Lombardo’s. It was a favorite location for banquets and retirement parties; or just that that comfortable place on a cold February Sunday night in Albany when you had to get out of the house or you would go nuts. You were treated like family, whether you were a regular or not, and if you were a regular there was a good chance your order might be placed with the kitchen as you walked in the door.
The rest of downtown Albany was a ghost town by 1980, and the city’s population dwindling, yet Lombardo’s remained a destination, even for those who’d moved to the suburbs. New comers to the city, many of whom had come to work in expanding State government, discovered Lombardo’s and fell in love.
By now Charley and Anna’s grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren, worked in the restaurant. Lombardo’s was, above all, about good food and family. But it was also, through decades a gathering place for local and state politicians. When you walked into the bar, you never knew what luminaries you would see. War stories were told, campaigns plotted and deals made. The fate of the city or state might hang in the balance over Lombardo’s veal and peppers.
Finally in 1991 the intertwined families sold the restaurant to the Rose-Marie and Paul Mancino. (Paul knew the restaurant from his childhood.) Except for some updating of the menu, and a renovation of the banquet room it didn’t change. (And it became a family affair when their son Anthony joined the staff.)
Despite the sale, Bill Lombardo remained in the apartment over the restaurant and you could often find him in the bar. (He was a great story teller and loved the ponies.) Bill passed away in December 2016, the last of Anna and Charley’s children.
The Mancino’s had been trying to sell the restaurant for the past 7 years. In 2017 Rose-Marie passed away; Paul decided to close the restaurant.
The end of an era.
*For more on Albany during Prohibition we recommend Wicked Albany: Lawlessness and Liquor in the Prohibition Era, Frankie Bailey and Alice Green, The History Press, 2009.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor