A master craftsman closes up shop in Harvard Square
Drew Faust walked up those same steps to Rizzo Tailor when she became president of Harvard eight years ago, and Julia Child in the 1980s, and Robert F. Kennedy as an undergrad back in 1947. It was an old-world refuge even then, an artisan’s workshop crafting bespoke suits of subtle elegance, but also a neighborhood tailor dispensing alterations and advice.
“I won’t be here too long,” he confided to Leslie Zheutlin, who started coming four decades ago when she was a young assistant in a publishing office next door and arrived last Tuesday bearing three pairs of unhemmed pants.
“You’re going south?” she asked, hopefully, knowing how rarely he took vacations, all those years of six-day weeks.
Calautti, dressed in his usual necktie and half-apron, shook his head. “Next week I’m going to close up,” he said, in the rolling accent that has enchanted customers for 51 years. “I’m too old. You know — we know — when we used to sing, and we used to have fun!”
He grew quiet. “Now it’s time for me to hang up my needle and my thimble.”
“Oh no!” she said, clutching her chest. “I mean, I’m happy for you. But my heart.”
Kerry’s reaction was similar, when he called to inquire about getting a couple of old suits fixed and Calautti broke the news.
“I said, ‘What!? You can’t do that!’ ” Kerry recalled Friday, during a phone interview on a Tunisia-to-Austria flight, nearly 40 years after he first visited Calautti as a Middlesex prosecutor.
“He’s an institution. He’s just one of those great characters who makes a place special,” Kerry said, describing the pleasure of looking through swatch books with Calautti or watching him glide around his cutting table, always with a smile and a story.
“He sets a real standard for quality,” Kerry said. “But the best thing is Joe. He’s a wonderful human being.”
Anthony Galluccio, the former Cambridge mayor and state senator, said Calautti hired him at 12 to sweep up after learning Galluccio’s father had died. He turned a blind eye to his teenage fashion choices and taught him to dress when he became a man. Galluccio now owns Rizzo suits for special occasions and brings him his off-the-rack items for both approval and alteration. “I wouldn’t even consider it a final purchase until Joe looked at it,” he said.
Some have called Calautti “the mayor of Harvard Square, but I think he’s more like the governor,” said John DiGiovanni, Calautti’s landlord and president of the square’s business association. He was a friend and alterations customer before he decided to indulge in a bespoke Rizzo suit.
“I don’t know at what point you’re worthy,” DiGiovanni said. “He’s just a premier artist.”
Calautti quietly promised himself he would retire — at 62, at 65, at 70 — longing to spend more time with the wife he first met as a child in the southern Italian village of Grotteria. They exchanged smiles and winks in church, before he shipped north to apprentice and she moved with her family to Somerville at 16. (His proposal to Olga was relayed first in a conversation between their fathers, and then a letter sent across the Atlantic.)
But he thought of his customers, who have come to him before the most important celebrations of their lives, who have confided before his mirror about cancer diagnoses and divorce, and he couldn’t bear to go. He wanted to leave them in good hands.
But the trouble was every skilled artisan Calautti ever hired to help with custom work was older than he was. The barbers and shoemakers and even the chocolatiers had found successors, but who had the time or inclination in the 21st century to spend years as an understudy learning to perfect a single garment that could take 40 hours to make?
Calautti himself apprenticed for eight years in Milan while Olga waited for him before returning to the village for their wedding. The young tailor arrived here as a newlywed at 23, and after three days got on the T with three English phrases (“good morning,” “I love you,” and “Park Street”) and the Boston address of the overcoat factory where much of Olga’s family already worked.
Hired there, he quickly dreaded the repetitive, impersonal work in the noisy factory. After a few months, an in-law introduced him to Rizzo — who hired Calautti after a one-day test with a nod of approval and a $20 bill. He immediately gave notice to the Malcolm Kenneth Co.
“You not gonna go nowhere,” Calautti remembers the foreman telling him, urging him to think of his family and not walk away from steady factory work to assist an old man. “This is your future!”
He credits Olga, “the love of my life,” with making so much possible. In the early years, after he purchased Rizzo’s business with an older partner, she picked him up every night in time to join her and the girls for dinner. In the 1980s, after their daughters were grown and the partner retired, she came to work beside her husband, performing alterations for more than 20 years.
As the sky darkened last Wednesday, Calautti looked around, still excited over his own workmanship on the hand-cut buttonholes of his final suit, pressing it with the same pedal-operated heavy dry iron that Rizzo purchased secondhand nearly a century ago.
“Can you find somebody who wants this machine?” he asked softly. “It was always good to me.”
He locked the door and headed to the Charles Hotel, where a group of professors waited to buy him a drink, some of them customers for 50 years, some just a few. All were wearing Calautti’s work. Robert Glauber, a former treasury undersecretary, wore a checked blazer Calautti made in 1992. Gautam Mukunda, an assistant business school professor, wore a recent Calautti three-piece suit.
“Joe,” Mukunda asked, “who do we go to now?”
Economic historian Henry Rosovsky, an emeritus dean in his 80s, shook his head and frowned. The answer was simple: “We don’t.”