Among many Italian restaurants around Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, Portofino was known for celebrity-spotting, a relaxed atmosphere and dinners that were abundant but affordable.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
A half-century later, it has earned another distinction — as a footnote to American history — because it was where Edie met Thea.
The case of Edith S. Windsor, who is challenging the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, is to be heard Wednesday by the Supreme Court. (A related case involving same-sex marriage in California was heard Tuesday.) If you trace Ms. Windsor’s marriage to Thea Clara Spyer back to its beginnings, you arrive at Portofino, 206 Thompson Street, near Bleecker Street.
At a time of high heels and pocket squares, Portofino was refreshingly casual. “Happy go lucky,” said Elio Guaitolini, 79, who worked there and, like the other waiters, often addressed regular customers by their first names.
And those weren’t just any names. Elaine Kaufman, a waitress and manager at Portofino, was perfecting her skills in cultivating the patronage of writers and entertainers, skills she would apply to her own restaurant, Elaine’s, which she opened on Second Avenue near East 88th Street in 1963. That made Portofino good for stargazing. “Don’t turn around just now — he’ll see us — but Bobby Short is over your left shoulder.” “Psst. I could swear that’s Lorraine Hansberry at the table by the window.”
There was more to admire than the celebrities, of course. Craig Claiborne, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, favored the boneless chicken Portofino and the scaloppine with butter and lemon.
But Portofino offered something else — on Friday nights in particular. It offered a place where women who wanted to rendezvous with other women could do so discreetly, with little fear of exposure or entrapment.
That described Ms. Windsor in 1963, divorced and 34 years old. She knew what she wanted but had no clue how to get it without risking her career at I.B.M. “I suddenly couldn’t take it any more,” she said in the documentary “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement” (2010), “and I called an old friend of mine — a very good friend — and I said, ‘If you know where the lesbians go, please take me.’ O.K. So she took me to the Portofino for dinner.”
“The lesbians used to go there on Friday night,” she said, “and somebody brought Thea over and introduced her. And we ended up dancing.”
Ms. Windsor’s lawyers said she was not available to be interviewed this week. (Ms. Spyer died in 2009, two years after the couple were lawfully married in Canada. Because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, Ms. Windsor had to pay estate taxes that spouses ordinarily avoid, which is at the heart of her legal challenge.)
Nonetheless, a picture emerged of Portofino in the day. “It was not one of the bars the ladies frequented regularly,” said the writer Marijane Meaker (pseudonymously M. E. Kerr), who is now finishing a memoir, “Remind Me.”
“You would be in error to write that Thea and Edie going to the Portofino was what began the landmark case coming up tomorrow,” she said in an e-mail. “It had begun years before, in many bars, mostly in Greenwich Village.” Some of the better-known among them were the Bagatelle, the Laurels, Provincetown Landing, the Sea Colony, Page Three, Seven Steps Down and Lonnie’s Hideaway.
“Most of these little joints were owned and run by organized crime in cahoots with the cops,” the novelist Ann Bannon said. “It was scary to be there if they hadn’t been raided by the police in a while. It meant the restaurant might be overdue for a raid, and you could end up in a paddy wagon on your way to the police station.
“Those were the days when they printed your name in the paper the next day,” Ms. Bannon continued. “And if, as a result, you were outed as L.G.B.T., your life was really turned upside down. It was not uncommon for people to lose their jobs, their friendships, even their family ties, so great was the opprobrium attached to that contaminated identity.”
If someone spotted you leaving Portofino, on the other hand, no suspicions were likely to be attached. The owner was Alfredo Viazzi, a restaurateur who became better known later for Trattoria da Alfredo, at Eighth Avenue and West 12th Street.
“It was a nice mix of people,” Mr. Guaitolini said. “A couple of the waiters were gay, but it was not a big issue. In that environment, it was taken for granted.” Mr. Guaitolini followed Ms. Kaufman to Elaine’s and later opened his own restaurants, including Elio’s at Second Avenue and East 84th Street. Joe Allen, the proprietor of Joe Allen Restaurant at 326 West 46th Street, said Portofino “had an artsy kind of edge to it.”
“It was Elaine’s having worked there that helped her get off the ground when she moved uptown,” Mr. Allen said.
Though Portofino closed long ago, its space still exists. It is now the Malt House, a gastro pub that opened in August 2012. When one of the owners, 33-year-old Eoin Foyle, learned of the connection between Portofino and the case before the Supreme Court, he said he liked the idea of affixing a historical plaque somewhere. Asked his view on same-sex marriage, Mr. Foyle answered simply, “100 percent support,” standing no more than a few feet from where Edie met Thea.