Megan Vaz

Growing up in New Haven’s Wooster Square, colloquially known as Little Italy, Claire Criscuolo picked up a thing or two about making hearty, home-cooked meals. Last week, the restaurant she’s owned and operated for most of her life, Claire’s Corner Copia — a staple for Yale students and locals, located right down the Green — turned 47 years old. 

In 1975, a newlywed Claire and her husband, Frank, found themselves “struck by how restaurant food was so different from [their] food at home.” On visits to Frank’s native Gloucester, Massachusetts, the two frequently ate at a restaurant named “The Raven,” where she enjoyed authentic food made with fresh ingredients. Dreaming of daily trips to the market and food that “tastes like you made it,” Claire and Frank opened a restaurant of their own soon after.

The two met in a bowling alley parking lot. Claire and her friend, Roseanne, were driving downtown in her red Volkswagen when Roseanne noticed a car at the bowling alley — the car belonged to John, who, as Claire put it, “she was stalking, basically.” Roseanne made Claire pull into the spot and “think of something” to say, suggesting she ask about a car for sale in the lot. 

She was telling the owner, her future husband, that she was thinking of upgrading, when John suddenly ran over to them and said, “You two are my favorite people — you should get married.” After some uncomfortable laughing and conversation, Frank asked Claire to go out for a cup of coffee. When she said she didn’t like coffee, he asked her to go out for a cup of tea.

“We started dating, and I know it sounds crazy — that love at first sight thing — but I just liked him immediately,” she said.

The restaurant was popular early on, but she recalled moments where it was “dismal.” During the 1970s, New Haven was “a boiler pot ready to explode” because of the high levels of injustice and danger. For a few years, business stalled after Yale closed its gates. When things turned for the worse, Mr. Goodman, the restaurant’s dairy and eggs distributor, told her she didn’t need to pay him anymore: She could use the money for rent payments. Little by little, the place began to bounce back.

She attributes being “put on the map” to News writer Terry Hawkins ’78, who wrote that Claire’s had “smoothies with a cure for hangovers as big as Idaho” after witnessing a fellow student bring a smoothie to class every day. Business boomed. The rest is history.

Claire is a legend, but more importantly, she’s humble. Beyond her kind smile and the greetings she shoots at regulars whenever they walk through the door, she’s got a sense of openness that invites people into both the restaurant and into her world. This is the third time I’ve interviewed her for the News, but when I talked to her for this piece, we instantly found several parallels in our lives. We both first became vegetarians in college  — okay, technically I’m pescatarian. We both came from immigrant families, struggling early on with cultural assimilation. Most importantly, we both feel compelled to do good in the world because of our experiences growing up among economic hardship. A faith in God encourages both of us to do good in the world.

“There’s a motto I have on the wall, on the soffit — I don’t know if you’ve seen it. But it reads the basic principle: ‘The only compelling reason we’ve been given more love than we need, more food than we need and more resources than we need is so that we may share it with those who have been given less,’” she says after I ask about how she tries to live her values. “They used to say, ‘Claire, just because you hear of a problem doesn’t necessarily mean it’s God whispering in your ear.’”

She’s got the motto stamped into her heart, memorized word-for-word. The restaurant’s commitment to this message is unquestionable: As long as they’ve been afloat, they’ve partnered with countless community organizations and charities to uplift those in need, including New Haven Reads. 

She grew up poor, but happy. She noted that being poor in the 50s was different from being poor today, as the cost of living has increased and girls in school must now pay for activities like sports. Her experiences seeing childrens’ poverty in the city and as a former nurse at the Connecticut Mental Health Center have motivated her to help them through community service. 

“I really want to focus my money more on ways that I can lift children out of poverty, because, again, I wish I could help everyone,” she tells me. “But children, if we want a better future, then our children need to have a better childhood. Right?”

Aside from the influences of her own childhood, she’s been motivated to act by the experiences of her restaurant family. After one employee told her about the stresses she faced growing up poor, with little supplies to clean her clothes and wash herself, she better understood the realities of poverty hygiene. Then, she joined a partnership with the Yale Child Study center to raise supplies to promote children’s hygiene.  

Claire may be the restaurant’s namesake, but she places the whole team at the heart of the operation. Employees at Claire’s tend to “stay for two weeks or for two years,” popping up as familiar faces whenever a customer drops by. As she took me back into the kitchen, which I’d only peered into from time to time whenever I stood in front of the register to order, she heralded a mixture of laughter, groans and jokes when she called everyone to gather for a photo. They share the restaurant’s mission just as much as she does.

Looking ahead, she’s still got a list of things the world should look forward to.

“I’m looking forward to not having hunger in our city. I’m looking forward to better outcomes in school, more than anything in the world,” she told me decisively.  “Probably, I’d give up anything I own if I could just have immigration reform above everything, even above food.”

Leaving Claire’s, decked out in sprawling pumpkin displays in honor of autumn, I knew it’d only be a matter of days before I returned. That week, she recommended snickerdoodles and the rice and lentil salad as menu favorites, but her favorites tend to change every week. What remains unchanged is Claire’s warm smile and unflinching commitment to the city, both as a purveyor of good eats and benefactor to those most in need. 

Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.