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Comfort Food
For 30 years, Claire’s Corner Copia has nourished town and gown with big portions, too much butter, and love.

Fame has its drawbacks. For Sean Penn, it’s the paparazzi. For Jennifer Aniston, it’s the tabloid pictures of Brad with Angelina. For Claire Criscuolo, it’s the rigors of mixing a yogurt smoothie or signing for a delivery while chatting with fans of her New Haven restaurant, Claire’s Corner Copia. “Are you THE Claire?” asks a first-time customer from Manhattan one Sunday afternoon, spotting the middle-aged woman behind the counter.

Claire’s exemplifies the laid-back vegetarian restaurants that proliferated in the 1970s.

Doesn’t everybody already know Claire? A few minutes later, Claire is delivering lunch, Corner Copia-style, to customers in the dining room. Wearing a black wraparound apron, she emerges from the tiny kitchen holding a plate of Mexican lasagna and calls out a name: “Heather? Heather?” Peering over square black-framed glasses, Claire scans the room. “My glasses are foggy,” she explains, to anyone who might be listening.

The restaurant that Claire and Frank Criscuolo financed by putting Claire’s engagement ring in hock turned 30 this September. With its long glass cases of freshly baked cakes, a menu densely chalked on two gigantic blackboards (“Attention!! All our bread is now vegan”), and a frieze of green leaves and purple grapes hand-painted on its ochre walls, Claire’s exemplifies the laid-back vegetarian restaurants that proliferated in the 1970s. Most are long gone. That makes Claire’s Corner Copia, just two years younger than the well-known Moosewood Collective in Ithaca, one of the longest-surviving independently owned vegetarian restaurants in the country.

Being an avatar of peace, love, and clean living all these years clearly has required a lot of stamina. For the 54-year-old Criscuolo, running the place demands a lot more than long hours stir-frying vegetables in a hot kitchen. Serving as the embodiment of 1970s values in the new millennium requires accessing organic food (without going broke); perennially providing free cakes to local groups holding fund-raisers; and promoting healthy eating while explaining why it’s okay to indulge occasionally in her butter-laden Lithuanian Coffee Cake. Criscuolo also feels obligated to address more personal issues, like how to coax a line cook into going back to college; how to wrangle a visa for the 12-year-old daughter of her irreplaceable kitchen manager from Mexico; or how to find time to write a fourth cookbook. The first, Claire’s Corner Copia Cookbook, went through ten printings at Penguin Books.

Handily located at the corner of Chapel and College streets, Claire’s is a stopping-off point for vagabond politicians, actors, and academics; a hangout where students cram for exams over coffee; a place to pick up a muffin en route to work. The place has expanded from the claustrophobic space of its early years, and the long, narrow restaurant seats 68 indoors and 12 at sidewalk tables. Through the large glass windows, customers can see the brownstone walls of Yale’s Bingham Hall, the white spire of the Center Church on the Green, and the distant gold-domed cupola of the Union Trust building. On this corner, town meets gown.

“Claire’s has mirrored New Haven’s emergence as an interesting and funky place.”

Editor and investigative reporter Paul Bass '82 calls Claire’s “an icon of what makes New Haven different and special.” Having eaten at Claire’s since arriving as a Yale freshman 27 years ago, Bass says, “I’ve watched Claire’s grow along with the city: its growth has mirrored New Haven’s emergence as an interesting and funky place. It’s a distinctive and original enterprise that appeals to very different kinds of people. Businessmen go to Claire's, students go to Claire's, religious people go to Claire's, gourmands go to Claire's.”

Celebrities go to Claire's, too: actors including Eli Wallach, Sam Waterston '62 (likes the pancakes), Meryl Streep '75MFA, and Hal Linden; tennis players Alicia Molik (orders yogurt smoothies and salads) and John McEnroe (phoned to praise the chili); Senator Joe Lieberman '64, '67LLB; and writer Wally Lamb. Jennifer Beals '86, star of the movie Flashdance when a freshman, still remembers the “huge, tasty” muffins.

The Claire's-Yale connection goes back almost to the beginning. In 1976, freshman Jeffrey Hall '81 won the name-the-restaurant contest advertised in the Yale Daily News. Hall recalls that, in those days, the place carried a jumble of items ranging from submarine sandwiches to rolling papers. (Claire also mentions turquoise rings, puka shell necklaces, and ice cream cones; the restaurant had to buy the inventory of the caramel corn shop it replaced.) When Hall proposed “Claire’s Corner Copia,” he won weekly hot fudge sundaes for a year. (He courted Lisa Barca '82 over sundaes; the Barca-Halls now live in California and have seven children.)

Michael J. Morand '87, '93MDiv, who first visited Claire’s as an undergraduate and is now Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs, says the restaurant is “one of those places, like Louis Lunch and Pepe’s and Mory’s, that you will hear mentioned by alumni when you’re around the country.” Some alumni yearn sufficiently for the Lithuanian Coffee Cake—a streusel-filled and cream cheese-frosted confection—to ask Claire to mail them one. She’ll do that, for around $22. As one mail-order customer from Los Angeles told Claire: “It’s less than flying there.”

Not everyone likes the food. In their New Haven restaurant guide, The Menu, Robin Goldstein '02JD and Clare Murumba '04JD describe Claire’s as “a cutting-edge vegetarian restaurant, circa 1977,” with “offerings that range from bland to an ill-inspired pan-ethnic mess.” They rate the place well below Mory’s and a notch below Naples. “Concoctions are slathered with cheese and oil,” they write, “stripping away even the purported health value of vegetarian food.”

Morand, a Claire’s devotee, admits, “Claire clearly has a love affair with butter.” But apparently, New Haveners do too. The restaurant regularly wins awards in the New Haven Advocate—top-rated by readers in 2005 in the categories for vegetarian restaurant, soup, and desserts—and gets favorable descriptions in magazines from Yankee to Connecticut and guidebooks, including Roadfood by critics Jane Stern '71MFA and Michael Stern '69GRD.

“It’s all about the muffins,” jokes Claire.

“It’s all about the muffins,” jokes Claire. (Customer favorites include the raspberry bran and the blueberry with ricotta.) But her menu is dizzyingly varied, embracing cuisines from Italian to Mexican to Middle Eastern. Morand loves the broccoli rabe sauteed with garlic, with Claire’s signature miniature bread loaf. Bass eats there because it’s Kosher and vegetarian; he favors escarole soup and anything with soy chicken. New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. really likes the muffins, but while he’s running for governor of Connecticut and sticking to the South Beach diet, it’s stir-fried vegetables or the salad with herb dressing.

Goldstein does admire Claire’s commitment to cooking with local and organic ingredients. The Menu also has high praise for Basta, the new mostly-organic restaurant that Claire and Frank opened in January, right next door on Chapel Street. (Unlike Claire's, Basta is upscale and serves meat and fish under the direction of non-vegetarian Frank.)

Claire developed her ethic of using local, seasonal, and preferably organic food at about the same time as did the celebrated California restaurateur Alice Waters. But whereas Waters found inspiration traveling in France after college, Claire LaPia Criscuolo developed her sensibilities growing up over her grandfather’s Wooster Street grocery store, Paolo Bigio and Sons. Her mother, Anna Bigio LaPia, cooked fresh food from the backyard garden for her husband and three children. Claire used to tease her mother, “Why do you even own a can opener?”

Not that Claire wanted to stay at home. “I told my mother not to bother wasting my time teaching me to cook. I never planned to make housewifery my career.” She earned a nursing degree at the University of Bridgeport and worked briefly as a psychiatric nurse. But when she married former rock guitarist Frank Criscuolo at age 24 in February 1975, they wanted to work together. That summer, Frank sold his car and borrowed pots and pans from his grandmother. Claire handed her diamond ring to the landlord, and her mother took out a second mortgage on her house. Claire had become a vegetarian during college (“because I care about the earth”) and the restaurant went vegetarian and no-smoking soon after opening.

These days, Criscuolo gets much of her summer produce from Common Ground High School in New Haven, an eight-year-old charter school with an environmental focus and a 1.25-acre organic garden run by students. Common Ground supplies the restaurant with flowers and vegetables including arugula, radishes, purple potatoes, tatsoi, Tuscan kale, basil, eggplants, okra, beets, and heirloom tomatoes. Farm manager Joe Lesiak charges Claire’s wholesale price. “That income has enabled us to expand and try different techniques in the garden,” says Lesiak. This summer the students learned succession farming, planting beans and baby greens a few weeks apart so they could harvest five crops.

“It’s as much about social work as it is about food.”

Some of Criscuolo’s 30 part-time and full-time employees have worked there for a long time. Some who are Mexican work there for a few years, then go home for a year, perhaps bringing back a cousin or niece when they return. Criscuolo splits the cost of health insurance with her full-time employees, and dishwashers get $10 to $11 an hour—more than counter workers, because they don’t get the satisfaction of hearing customers praising the food or atmosphere. “With dishwashers, it’s only ‘Mas platos, por favor,’” says Criscuolo. “Our dishwashers are gods to us.” They are Spanish-speaking gods, and Criscuolo is working on her Spanish. She has been working on it for 15 years. “Conjugating is killing me,” she says.

Claire believes that the restaurant itself builds community. “I have this insane belief that if we sit together and share meals, we’ll realize we’re very much alike. I just think a lot of resolution could happen over a dinner table. It’s as much about social work as it is about food.” Her more conventional social work includes collecting for a cause-of-the-month in cans by the cash register; donating 10 percent of her profits to charity; and giving surplus food to soup kitchens. She helps out Yale student organizations by providing snacks to a late-night meditation group, a cookbook to raffle at a sorority fundraiser.

“At the end of the day, it’s about relationships, like everything important in life,” says Mayor DeStefano. “There’s no one who goes into that place who doesn’t get to know Claire and Frank. You come in, and you’re the mayor, you’re the best mayor in America.You come in, and you’re a student, and you’re the best student in America. She just makes you feel special.” the end




Zucchini Fritters

4 cups grated unpeeled zucchini
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
4 squash blossoms, chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup soybean or vegetable oil for frying

In a bowl, combine all ingredients except oil. Beat lightly with a spoon. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, until a pinch of batter dropped in rises quickly to the top. Drop heaping tablespoons of the batter into the skillet. Don’t crowd the pan or the fritters will be oily. Cook each side until golden brown, 2 or 3 minutes. Drain the cooked fritters on paper towels while you fry the remaining batter. Serve with lemon wedges or marinara sauce. Serves 4.


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