With buffalo wings, fresh Blood Marys, and an endless supply of cheerful banter, Brian Badamo won back two old customers to his brand new Jocelyn Square restaurant.
Badamo (pictured), a 38-year-old retired Hamden fire marshal, and his wife are the latest in a series of owners to take over a landmark bar at the corner of Humphrey and East Streets. Since its days as a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the bar has been an anchor—for better or for worse—defining Jocelyn Square, an often overlooked neighborhood isolated by highway overpasses.
Since the 1980s and ‘90s, through a series of owners, the bar was known as Humphrey’s East. The Badamos are making a clean break with that history. They’ve renamed the business Carissa’s Cafe, after their 5-year-old daughter. And they’re almost done renovating the entire interior, updating the decor with tile floors and new ceilings.
Even as he starts fresh, Badamo is trying to reclaim the Humphrey’s he knew in the ‘90s, when he was a regular. He’s trying to woo back old bartenders and claim customers who have been coming to the various Humphrey’s iterations through the years.
Two of those, Cindimarie Marshall and Sheryl Berkowitz, stopped in for lunch on Thursday. They marveled at the restaurant’s transformation before they tucked into burgers and wings. Both dishes met with their approval.
Another customer returning for the first time, Herb Wilson, found his burger slightly overcooked and wasn’t happy that it had taken a long time to reach his table. He said he’d nevertheless be coming back since the restaurant is so close to his workplace at the new state Department of Social Services regional office.
At 11:45 a.m., before his customers arrived, Badamo was installed in his steamy second-floor office, on the phone with AT&T, trying to get his fax line fixed.
Annmarie Nappi, the head bartender, came up the stairs to show off the latest issue of Natural Awakenings magazine. Itfeatures a blurb about Carissa’s. The restaurant is trying to get the word out that it’s open, months after Humphrey’s shut its doors.
Before the Badamos, the space was most recently run by Joyce Bellamy, the owner of Butta J’s Cafe. She took over in the spring of 2011 but shut down after only a couple of months. The place remained closed until the Badamos opened it again at the beginning of June under the new name.
“The only reason I’m breaking tradition is I didn’t want to have any of their persona on me,” Badamo said of the name change.
“This is your family legacy now,” Nappi said.
“New image, new times, new name, ... new everything,” Badamo said.
“It was so dingy and blah-looking down there,” Nappi said. “Now it’s brand new, from floor to ceilings.”
Badamo rattled off a list of entertainments he plans to host in the new surroundings: Sunday brunches with magicians or clowns to amuse the kids, karaoke on Monday nights, jazz on Tuesdays, comedy on Wednesdays, DJs and live bands on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and more—open mics, trivia nights, poetry.
As for food, the Badamos have partnered with chef Catherine DeFrancesco (pictured), who’s created a “hybrid” menu of traditional pub fare and Italian food, Badamo said.
Heading downstairs, Badamo pointed out all the work he’s had done in the restaurant. The back room (pictured), which has a stage for live bands, is still under renovation. Badamo said he has walled off the opening to an illegal outdoor seating area. He has plans to open it back up if he gets zoning permission.
He pointed out a bar in the room with hand-carved gargoyle-like faces that he said dates back to 1886. That will stay.
Moving towards the front of the house, Badamo pointed out the new wall separating the kitchen from the dining area, the coffered ceilings.
The frontmost room, the bar area, has new tile floors and a stone “accent wall” in place of the old wood paneling, Badamo pointed out. “Soup to nuts, it’s brand new.”
Back To The Future
Badamo said what he liked about Humphrey’s in the ‘90s was the mix of people. You might find an older guy at the bar in the front having a drink. Younger people would pass through to the back toward a louder party. “It was just a mixture,” Badamo said. Everyone got a long and there was no violence.
If that was the case in the ‘90s, it wasn’t in May 2010, when a 26-year-old was shot and killed in a nearby car as the bar was letting out.
To address security concerns, Badamo said he’ll have bouncers every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night and extra-duty police once the back room opens. He said he has installed new security cameras and worked with United Illuminating to put up two big new spotlights to keep the parking lot bright and crime-free.
As he was remembering the Humphrey’s of the ‘90s, two longtime regulars peered into the dining room: Marshall and Berkowitz, checking out the new digs. They said they’ve worked down the street for 15 years.
“We used to come here when it was Humphrey’s,” Berkowitz said.
“One reason we used to come was the bartender—Murph,” Marshall said.
“Murph. I have a plan—a phone call into Murph,” Badamo said. He said he’s trying to convince the bartender to come back.
He seated the women at the bar, where they commented on the lack of hooks to hang their purses and a bar to rest their feet on. They let Badamo know he was taking too long to take their drink orders.
“Brian, you’re failing the bartender part,” Marshall chided cheerfully. She ordered a gin and tonic. Berkowitz had a Bloody Mary, which Badamo assured her was freshly made, not from a mix.
“It’s OK, we like you so far,” Marshall said.
Meanwhile, Wilson and co-worker Reggie Hayes came in and took a corner table. Wilson, who plays the saxophone, said he remembers playing jazz gigs in the back years ago. He approved of the improvements to the decor, but said he would withhold judgment on the new place until he tasted the food.
He and Hayes ordered burgers, as did Marshall and Berkowitz.
Badamo offered a sample of the bar’s buffalo and aspen wings. the latter being “almost like an Asian wing” with a ginger-teriyaki flavor.
“They’re good. They’re meaty,” Berkowitz announced. She and Marshall both said they were pleased with their burgers, and the drinks, and the sweet potato wedges that Marshall ordered.
But over at the corner table, Wilson wasn’t as pleased about his burger. “It’s good. But overcooked.” He said the meat was well-done. “I asked for medium.”
Wilson said he also unhappy with how long it took to get his meal. “It’s been over a half-hour, and there’s no one else in here.”
He said he’ll come back, however, because Carissa’s is near his workplace.
“We’re getting steady regulars coming in,” Badamo said. He said a group of regulars came in recently “and said they’ve been through five owners and they’ll outlast me.”