The Marliave Sisters
Inside Scoop: I feel boastful today, so I'll say that this is one of the best stories I've pumped out in a while. Classic DeMarco, if you will: a heart-warming, salt-of-the-earth tale with good rhythm, flow and quotes. The banter between the ladies and Frank, who is a non-stop talker, was funny. He butted into our conversation so often - and made so many faintly disguised pleas to be in the story - that I started laughing at the lunch table. I'll look for some quotes and publish them at the end of the story. The only bummer was that this was supposed to be on the cover of City Weekly, but instead ended up buried inside. That doesn't happen often. Now, we'll have to see about payment. Another battle awaits, I'm afraid.
The Sisters of Marliave are not departed
Charlestown trio sticks to tradition
By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent | December 25, 2005
''The Sisters are here," calls out a member of Marliave Restaurant's wait staff, and inevitably, heads turn to see whether a group of nuns has walked through the door.
But sit within earshot of Ruth, Rita, and Joan's customary table -- second floor, under the middle window -- and you won't hear much talk about holy miracles. Unless, of course, someone spotted a Karen Scott sweater at Filene's for 30 percent off the markdown price.
The Marliave ''Sisters" -- Ruth Humphrey, 73; Joan O'Halloran, 75; and Rita Healey, 85 -- know more about shopping than almost anyone else treading Washington Street this holiday season. When they were all young women in the late 1940s they made a pact to spend Saturdays combing the racks at Gilchrist's, R.H. Stearns, and Jordan Marsh. A leisurely afternoon lunch at their favorite Italian restaurant, the Marliave on nearby Bosworth Street, completed the ritual.
Downtown Crossing has changed enormously since those halcyon days, when a fancy Betmar felt hat cost $4.98 at Raymond's and Neisner's Five-and-Dime served hot dogs for pennies. This spring even Filene's, the shopping district's grand old lady, will close its doors to make way for condominiums or office space or a discount store or some other form of modern progress.
Through it all, the Sisters, or so they're called, have been here. Climbing aboard the No. 93 bus in Charlestown where they live, they have made the trip to Downtown Crossing almost every Saturday for some 55 years. In the thick of blizzards they've pounded on Marliave's door, the only customers to make it that far. Summer heat waves likewise have not held them back from a good sale.
''We kept telling our kids. 'Don't do this on a Saturday.' 'Don't get married on a Saturday.' 'Don't do confirmation on a Saturday,' " says Ruth, ''because we can't go."
They arrive at the Marliave about 1 p.m., a fresh white cloth atop their reserved table. As always, Rita sits on one side and Ruth and Joan on the other. Anne Battit, their waitress, brings dishes of sliced pepperoni, french fries, and rolls and butter for them to nibble on as they chat away about life's ups and downs. At 2 p.m. they order their main meal: chicken marsala, no mushrooms, for everyone.
The entire restaurant knows the drill.
''We used to get chicken cacciatore. Oh, it was delicious," says Rita. ''Then we changed to marsala one day. The chef came up and wanted to know what was wrong with the cacciatore."
The original group had seven ''Sisters": the O'Neil sisters -- Ruth, Rita, May, and Doris -- plus Audrey, their sister-in-law, and good friends Bernie and Joan. They'd get to Downtown Crossing by about 9 a.m. on a Saturday and sail through a veritable sea of department stores.
There was Woolworth's and on the corner of Winter and Washington, Gilchrist's. For a man's dress shirt, it had to be Kennedy's; for baby clothes, R.H Stearns.
''I used to buy my hats at Raymond's," says Rita. ''I would go in and try them all on."
''We always wore hats," says Joan. ''To church, you wore hats."
During the week the women would leave their jobs at the Charlestown HealthCare Center, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, and a bank -- bearing a different name depending on the decade -- to scout the sales during lunch hours. On Saturdays, with their mothers or someone else baby-sitting the kids, they would return to cash in on the bargains.
And so it went for decades, until shopping malls came on the scene, and the old-time
department stores began to disappear one by one.
Still, even as Downtown Crossing lost its luster, the Sisters kept coming back.
''I don't like malls. Period," says Rita.
''You take the bus from here to Charlestown. That takes, what, 15 minutes?" asks Ruth.
No matter what shops came or went, the Marliave was a constant. Jerry Collocini, their bartender for 30 years, was always ready with a joke or a song. On Saturdays, the regular crowd -- some doctors, a lawyer from Boston University, some contractors named O'Connor, another bar-goer named Bill -- would fill the room.
''Nobody bothers you in here. That's why we come here," says Ruth on a recent Saturday, a cranberry drink in her hand. ''We can sit here for hours if we wanted to. And they would never say, 'Oh you have to leave.' "
''I did try to throw them out," corrects Frank Iacoviello, the restaurant's owner, speaking up from behind the bar. ''They refused to leave!"
Iacoviello has known the women for 10 years, since he bought the Marliave, and such friendly bickering is by now part of the Saturday tradition. As Rita describes the handbag and glasses she has at home with the Marliave name on them, Frank jokingly barks out that they're stolen.
Naturally, some changes have been inevitable, the women say. Pushcarts clog Washington Street, much to their chagrin, and politically correct ''holiday trees" have replaced the old-fashioned Christmas trees they grew up with.
Doris, Audrey, Bernie, and May have all gone. Last year, Jerry the bartender retired because of a heart condition.
Jordan Marsh and its Enchanted Village were taken over by Macy's. Their beloved Filene's will be next.
''I went into a bank in Charlestown," says Ruth. ''I was at the counter, and the woman said, 'What are you going to do without Filene's? I used to see you every day in there walking around.' I said, 'I don't know. I guess we'll survive.' "
And so will their tradition, they pledge. In spite of what pessimists say, Joan believes Downtown Crossing is very much alive and well. ''When there are sales, it's packed like it always was," she says. This very month, Ruth says she snagged her best-ever bargain: a $150 Karen Scott outfit for a mere $43.
Though the Marliave is showing its age -- the 137-year-old restaurant has barely changed over the decades -- the food and service are still very good, and Frank is still there on Saturdays to give them trouble.
Whenever their daughters or grandchildren are around, the women take them to the Marliave.
''As long as they're here, we'll be here," says Joan.
A few minutes later, Frank barks from the bar again, telling the women they won't get any french fries or pepperoni next week.
''OK," says Ruth, then threatens to relocate the Sisters to another downtown eatery. ''Shepherd's pie. They serve that over there."
''Yeah. It's frozen. It's made in Chicago," Frank says.
''So are you!" says Rita.
''I'll make you a shepherd's pie next week."
Peter DeMarco can be reached at email@example.com.