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Photos of the famous (and not): Distinctive decor on St. Paul’s West Seventh

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The pinnacle of this kind of art display is the Lexington, on Grand Avenue, which has framed photos of nearly everyone who’s held any elected office in the state since the 1950s. But we're concentrating on West Seventh.

Maybe I’m just going to the wrong bars and restaurants, but here is something you see all the time in St. Paul, and almost never see in Minneapolis: framed photos on the walls of all of the famous people who have frequented the establishment over the years (with the definition of “famous” varying wildly from “household name” to “vaguely familiar, locally specific face”). Not just a few framed photos on one wall, either, but on every wall, covering them.

Can you think of any Minneapolis restaurants that do this? Market Bar-B-Que on Nicollet is the only one that comes to mind. Otherwise, I don’t remember seeing this sort of thing, even at much older places, like Jax Café or Peter’s Grill. I could be wrong. But even so, it’s hard to deny that this sort of portrait arrangement is really a native art of the restaurateurs and bartenders of St. Paul.

There are a few possible reasons for this. This may be because St. Paul is the state’s seat of power and its bars and restaurants attract a more influential clientele (maybe somewhat true). It may be because the bars and restaurants are just older (probably true), or because the whole city is just more neighborhood-oriented (almost certainly true), or has a better sense of its own history (100 percent true), or is just much more provincial (hey, careful there).

The pinnacle of this art is the Lexington, on Grand Avenue, which has framed photos of nearly everyone who’s held any elected office in the state since the 1950s. In the interest of keeping this column to a contained geographic area, however, we’ll focus instead on some establishments located on one of the oldest roads in the state. It’s a road where much of this sense of fame, influence, memory, power and history resides.

The road is West Seventh, roughly from Cossetta to Mancini’s.

West Seventh was first known as Fort Road, because it carried travelers – by horse, then streetcar, then automobile – parallel to the river from Fort Snelling to St. Paul. The oldest residential neighborhood in the cities, Irvine Park, is right here – it was home to governors, mayors and congressmen. It was also the endpoint for a half-dozen waves of immigration: Italians, Germans, Bohemians, and Poles. The Xcel Energy Center is currently located there, but before that, it was the home of the St. Paul Civic Center Arena, which is where you went to go see the Fighting Saints and the Clash and Verne Gagne. For god’s sake, Bruce Springsteen filmed the video for “Dancing in the Dark” there. The whole Seven Corners neighborhood and surrounding area has been an incredible nexus of many of the things that make St. Paul such a great city: immigration, wealth, political influence, beer, hockey, and arena rock. 

Cossetta, aka Cossetta’s Italian Market & Pizzeria, has sat at the top of West Seventh for a hundred years; Mancini’s has been less than a mile away down West Seventh since 1948. Both were founded by neighborhood Italian families who lived in the Little Italy section around the old levee, and whose children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to run the businesses. These establishments serve as micro-museums, preserving the history and culture of the immediate neighborhood in a more immediate way than a formal institution could. 

In fact, Cossetta’s visual holdings are so vast that it’s practically an unofficial museum to the Italian-American experience in St. Paul in the 20th century. Particularly on the second floor, in the dining area, there are dozens of photos of the neighborhood. There are plenty of photos of dignitaries who’ve visited – Alan Page, Tim Pawlenty, Norm Coleman, Cal Clutterbuck, Henry Winkler, Ricky Rubio, and an enormous photo of Frank Sinatra, mounted near the front of the deli line with a handwritten letter from the Chairman himself personally thanking the proprietors for a great meal. But it’s the neighborhood that’s really the star. There are images of the store, of people who have lived in the area, pages from yearbooks, members of the Cossetta family, newspaper clippings from the past 70 years, documentation of the floods that made the area so difficult to settle, photos of parish priests, bishops, and monsignors. All are mounted on red, green or white mats. Celebrities come and go, but the neighborhood is forever. 

Next to Cossetta is Maharaja’s, “your rock and roll headquarters” (“we’re the good guys!” reads a hand-written note on the front door). Maharaja’s preserves a perhaps equally important legacy of the neighborhood: post-war arena culture. So much of the décor at Cossetta is devoted to amateur and professional sports, and hockey in particular. That’s because people have been coming down to Seven Corners for almost 40 years to go to arenas and see hockey games, but also wrestling matches, rock shows and other noisy, live events. They’ve also come here to drink beer, eat pizzas and sausages, and possibly ingest other substances while doing so. Maharaja’s pays tribute to all of these ideas: they sell hockey sticks, incense, T-shirts, jock sweatshirts supporting the Wild, North Stars and Golden Gophers, jewelry, strobe lights, posters, action figures, signed fan memorabilia, and just about anything else you can think of that a discerning rock and/or sports fan might want to wear, own or look at.
There are 3D glasses available in a basket on the floor, and I recommend you put a pair on.

The real visual tour de force is in the back of the store, however: There is an enormous, walk-in black light room. There are 3D glasses available in a basket on the floor, and I recommend you put a pair on. Because this room is amazing. There are posters of the usual black light-oriented heroes: Bob Marley, Scarface, Marmaduke (wait, Marmaduke? Yes, Marmaduke!). On the floor is a yellow brick road, leading to a fantastic painting of Oz on the ground, which appears to be floating in space when you stand on top of it and look down. At the back of the room is a 3D spiral, with Rod Serling standing next to it, smiling with sinister intent and smoking what may or may not be a cigarette as he pops off the wall at you. It is truly mind-boggling.

Uh, back on track. Mancini’s is less than a mile away down West Seventh, right on the edge of the old Little Italy section of town. In the same way that Cossetta’s documents the neighborhood, Mancini’s carefully documents the city’s obsessions: sports (hockey, football, baseball, boxing, and basketball, in descending order of importance), music, politics and religion. The selection is monumental. Don Mattingly. Dave Winfield. Ken Yackel. Vern Gagne. Two of 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team coach Herb Brooks. Hal Holbrook. Helen Reddy. A big one of Tony Bennett. Dozens and dozens of boxers, singers, entertainers, sportsmen, and others I don’t recognize. On top of that, there are platoons’ worth of soldiers, both G.I.s and officers, of all wars. A whole section of wall is devoted to the many exploits of Cretin-Derham’s student athletes over the past half-century.

Sports photos on the walls of Mancini's
MinnPost photo by Jana FreibandProminent and local sports figures adorn the walls of Mancini’s Char House & Lounge.

These portraits are generally arranged thematically, but not necessarily chronologically, which is why the photo of Ms. Reddy is joined by one of Ashlee Simpson, a singer with whom Helen Reddy shares very little in common, save they both ate at Mancini’s and enjoyed themselves.

This anti-chronological blending of time is part of what gives Mancini’s its timeless quality. The photos and displays are somewhat well-notated, but there’s also a clear sense that if you come into Mancini’s, you’re going to already be somewhat familiar with a lot of what you see: not only the high-level celebrities like Tony Bennett, but also the faces that make up the varsity hockey squad from the local high school that played down the road at the arena in the championships in nineteen-whenever.

This is St. Paul, they say. You know these people. You can even be one of them. Fame, influence, memory, power and history are what you make of them, but everyone likes to have a good place to go for dinner and drinks. 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/08/2012 - 11:35 am.

    Oh, yes Peter’s Grill; the old one…

    Pulled out of a trunk…Peter’s Grill; menu sometime in the late 60’s…old location:

    Counter looped like a snake around high leather bound stools, bordered by large oak booths where business deals and small pleasures could be activated; attendant conversations privately assured.

    Inside old menu…”Peter Atcas (with picture) founded in1914″ and as menu also states boldly…”Minneapolis’ Oldest Restaurant”

    …Where coffee was 35 cents a cup with refills and this establishment was known for it’s Banana Cream pie plus die-for Lemon Meringue and Apple-cinnamon.

    Maybe the heritage display – yes there was a small family history framed behind the cash register in Peter’s …maybe family restaurants and their photo documentaries are ethnic past leftovers from the immigrant experience and so highlighted ? Maybe they eventually disappeared with real mashed potatoes and homemade desserts and hot beef sandwiches with gravy made from scratch not canned… but then, who knows?

  2. Submitted by Karen Cole on 08/08/2012 - 01:33 pm.

    Fort Road

    I love visualizing the cart and buggies coming from Fort Road when driving down West Seventh.

    And now I’m going to have to check out Maharaja’s. I’ve never stepped foot inside.

    And I didn’t know Springsteen filmed Dancing In The Dark at the Civic Center. A good excuse for looking at it again:

    And thinking about Jon Stewart’s classic spoof of it:

    (This is a great series.)

    • Submitted by John Olson on 08/10/2012 - 07:18 am.


      …that Springsteen video also includes a young Courteney Cox bobbing up and down next to the stage, then getting onstage to dance at the end.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/08/2012 - 03:47 pm.

    Cafe family histories may be past hallmark and so much more…

    Time warp 1980 plus…

    Old man with a bulbous nose wearing a long black coat with molting-red fur collar is standing in a Dinky Town cafe talking to the hostess. Coat says old Italy like it’s seen some mighty fine days long ago. He leans against the counter by the cash register, his scuffed leather suitcase spread open on the counter – barely enough room, sharing the transparent glass surface with a pile of worn menus and a display box of breath mints.

    He strokes, almost caresses the objects in the case as if they were bars of gold. But it is the honey-hued gold of hand carved instruments. Flutes and recorders nestle in a bed of olive green velvet.

    The hostess, her elbows resting on the counter, chews her gum slowly; staring down at the open suitcase; her eyes uncomprehending. She has quickly categorized him as an incessant talker; tolerates the moment, and waits.

    The old man speaks with pride in a booming voice, telling of the artisan/carver whom he knows personally. He tells her how he watched the craftsman’s hands as they carved both song and soul out of a rare European wood. He describes the whirl and curl; the smell of the wood itself and oh yes, even tells the hostess of the embedded oils and varnishes that toned and lifted the grain. All a combination of secret formulas never written but passed down for generations.

    He gestures like a maestro as he speaks, his voice rising above the non-orchestrated cymbal-crashing of pots and pans from the cafe kitchen. The hostess nods; a syncopated metronome. The smack, smack of her gum chewing persists; a detached staccato breaking in.

    Cafe door opens and as quickly the hostess becomes a jack-in-the-box. She slides off her stool, grabs a couple menus. Shuffles off, leading the customers to the back of the cafe.

    The flute seller’s words become a hanging ellipsis…with no place to go. He slowly closes the suitcase; takes a long look around the cafe – heads for the entrance into a blinding sun.

    Outside the traffic roars and brakes squeal. Horns blow. Ambulance sirens wail. It’s high noon in the city and everybody is out to lunch

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/10/2012 - 07:20 am.

    Thanks for tolerating…

    Thanks for tolerating a bit of a stretch here but you open up the subjective in the reader I think; best excuse?

    …however may I suggest another ‘stroller’ style writer from 1920-1933, Joseph Roth who ‘strolled ‘ the streets of Berlin before its total collapse…he too shares the accent on detail; Berlin in all its beauty and harshness…”What I Saw” Joseph Roth…his works just translated not too many years ago

    Thanks too for “The Stroll”, telling what few have the time to see without your prose nudging a broader view…

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