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Primo Vino and Rheumatology: The End of an Era

Last month, a momentous occurrence took place in Cleveland: after 35 years, the enoteca and restaurant, Primo Vino, closed its doors to make way for an exciting development in Cleveland’s Little Italy. The owner, and my dear friend, said goodbye with mixed emotions at the end of a remarkable run of a place known for extraordinary wine and honest food. It was a simple place in a basement, hand crafted by Robert and his partner Carmen with their own hands. It was a place for oenophiles, artists, and performers of all sorts to mingle with the locals. I miss it greatly, but know that change is afoot and it will be exciting.


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From a “Wine and Food and the Rheumatologist” perspective, I have some observations to share. Certainly for myself and Brian Mandell, another Cleveland Rheumatologist well known to many, the closing of Primo has caused a riff in the fabric of our universe, as we routinely brought visiting professors there literally hundreds of times over the years. Robert would always fuss over the group making everyone feel special. Most left with smiles and memories of Primo Vino as significant as their visit to the Clinic. We are regrouping with other places now in Little Italy. It’s an adjustment so bear with me.  

In terms of wine events, both formal and informal, I cannot even attempt to count them but I can remember many. I can recall a Sassicaia vertical tasting set around the bar for 12 or so people with so many vintages I was numb half way through. A tradition at Primo was the Tre Bichierri tasting held each year (Tre Bicchieri means three glasses and designates the highest award granted to any wine yearly in the eminent publication Gambero Roso). This has gone on for eons and Robert always managed to capture the most out of way offerings that were always mind blowing. Winemaker after wine maker, hailing from venerable vineyards such as  Chianti icon Badia di Coltobuono, to the great Produtorri Barbaresco collective, as well as the dean of Italian wine making, Angelo Gaia, (and many, many more) all sat with us laughing and drinking the night away. It’s almost like a dream as I look back.

Finally, let me make the rheumatology connection (other than Brian and I). First, every other year, I have closed down Primo on given nights to host the VIP dinner for my Biologic Summit held here at the Clinic where 30-40 rheumatologists and their partners would eat, drink and laugh the night away together. Truth telling, I will share with you that often, when I invite famous rheumatologists to Cleveland, they begin their response by asking me if we would be going to see Robert at Primo! I have tried to count the number of ACR and EULAR Presidents who have been to Primo and it’s really hard. I estimate around a dozen and I suggest that no other single restaurant in Europe or America has hosted such a trans-Atlantic constellation of rheumatology notables as Primo. Robert has also traveled with me extensively, with me serving as his porter on wine adventures, and he as my social guide on trips to rheum meetings.  It has been natural symbiosis that has provided a lifetime, it seems, of fond memories.

Let me close by reflecting on how Robert and Primo have heavily influenced this blog. Yes, it’s true that originally Jack Cush twisted my arm to write this and I first envisioned that it would mostly be about geeky wine science oriented to our world as rheumatologists.  As it evolved, and largely fed by the comments of the many who have read it; I recognized that at its core, this blog really reflects how wine can bring people together (and in our case, rheumatologists) in ways that few things can. Note that in today’s blog, I have used the words laugh and joy many times (as opposed to terroir, bouquet and body).   I can assure you this was not planned. Like making natural wine it just came out that way. I truly believe that these words are as much a part of the wine lexicon as any technical oenological term and probably more so!  

In Tuscany, the home of some of the great wines of the world, there is a saying:

“Dio mi guardi da chi non beve vino” (which translates to: God keep me away from those who don’t drink wine)  

I have said enough. Hail to Primo Vino. I await the next…


Join The Discussion

Joseph Flood

| Oct 24, 2017 12:15 pm

I had the pleasure a few times to enjoy the hospitality of Robert. His food was good and made with a good spirit and concern for small things. Even though he and I went to high schools that are fierce rivals, I can call him a gentleman and a good soul. Please give him my best.

Jack Cush, MD

| Oct 24, 2017 6:18 pm

Oh my. my frequent flyer mileage at Primo and meals with Robert have ended. It is true that most rheumatologists put primo vino way ahead of any other attraction when in CLE, also known as "Lenny Land". Len what you accurately capture is that this was very much a "family" resturant with wine and superior food being the excuse or result of great company, good fun and something memorable. Bless you Robert and PV!

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Dr. Leonard H. Calabrese is Vice Chairmanof the Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Disease and Head of the Section of Clinical Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Dr. Calabrese holds the RJ Fasenmyer Chair of Clinical Immunology and is Professor of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. He has authored over 450 published peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and research abstracts. Follow him on Twitter: @LCalabreseDO