Where a cigar isn’t just a cigar

Sam Pollack is smoking a Partagas Maduro and sipping Grey Goose. Tony Gray favors Johnnie Walker Black with a Padron 1964 Anniversary. Rick Michaud goes for Bud Light with a new Ashton he admires. The air is just the way they like it — blue.

The three are ensconced in red leather armchairs at the Stanza dei Sigari, the North End cigar salon below Caffe Vittoria and the oldest cigar bar in the city. (The name means “room of cigars.’’) The crew puffs, sips, and talks while eyeing the Red Sox on a flat screen TV. In their zen-like state, nothing seems to concern them except whether to play golf tomorrow, a workday, when the temperature is supposed to reach 80.

Gray, 41, a lawyer, smoked his first cigar on a golf course with his father, and has lighted up on the links ever since. Does he still enjoy them as much ever?

Jarrod McCormick and Mark Everett (from left) smoke with Stanza dei Sigari owner David Riccio at the North End cigar bar.

Jarrod McCormick and Mark Everett (from left) smoke with Stanza dei Sigari owner David Riccio at the North End cigar bar.

“Absolutely, I do,’’ he says. “They’re the only redeemable part of my game.’’

Stanza is one of six cigar establishments (bars and shops) and four hookah bars left in Boston. All were slated to be snuffed out until the Boston Public Health Commission ruled last year that they could keep their licenses for a decade, at which point they will be up for renewal. No new licenses will be given out; the current ones are nontransferable.

“We gave them a reprieve,’’ says Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the health commission, who considers cigars to be a public menace. Stanza would be a case in point for her. It is wreathed with a robust mix of first- and second-hand smoke.

Stanza has rich bloodlines. It was a speakeasy in the 1920s and then a sedate men’s social club through the ’70s. In 1995, David Riccio and his brother Gerry, who also own the Caffe Vittoria upstairs, opened it as a cigar bar.

Those were heady days for the cigar business. In the early 1990s, Cigar Aficionado began to chronicle the trend, every issue featuring an A-list celebrity on its glossy cover. Young, upwardly mobile types, the ones clearing tidy sums in the go-go ’90s, could reel off their favorite cigars. Humidors were suddenly chic. In 1997, the number of premium cigar imports skyrocketed to nearly 418 million, up from just 243.5 million in 1996 and 136.3 million in 1995.

The glitter of those days is long gone, and David Riccio, 54, knows that cigar salons face a rough future. Smoking bans and higher federal excise taxes, combined with the economic downturn, have hit the industry hard. Last year, just over 287 million premium cigars were imported to the United States. But imports were down 32 percent in the first two months of 2010, according to Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America.

Despite it all, dedicated cigar fans happily soldier on. “It’s the proud, the few,’’ says Riccio.

“It’s all about guys who work all day long and want a drink and a cigar while they chat,’’ Riccio says. Adds Michaud, 44, who owns a printing company: “It’s the only place you can be truly comfortable.’’

Like their cigarette-smoking brethren, cigar smokers crave the freedom to smoke without being hectored by perceived health stormtroopers. One gets the feeling they’d move to a desert island en masse if necessary to continue their habit. Their outcast status creates a bond among them. They regale each other with stories considered badges of honor about the ostracism they face for their gamy habit.

Michaud smokes at least one cigar a day, usually two on Saturdays when he golfs. His wife and children detest the smell.

“I smoke in my car. It reeks,’’ he says. “I don’t notice it, but my daughter says, ‘That’s gross!’ My wife won’t let me smoke in the house, so I smoke in the garage. I’ve got a rocking chair and a TV there.’’

To keep their licenses, all 10 spots in Boston must derive at least 60 percent of their revenue from tobacco products rather than from food or alcohol. Riccio insists this is the reason his prices for cigars are steep. He wouldn’t reach 60 percent, he says, if he charged less.

A Montecristo No. 2 favored by one observer runs $26. A top-of-the-line cigar like an Arturo Fuente Opus X goes for a nosebleed $75. Patrons can bring their own cigars to save money and pay a $5 cutting fee for each cigar. They can also order a canoli from the cafe that will be brought down to them. One assumes a cigar-canoli combo is an acquired taste.

Stanza, unlike some other cigar bars, also has a liquor license that allows it to sell, among other things, astronomically expensive Scotch. One called The Last Drop goes for $275 a pop. All in all, the place is not for the faint of heart or the thin of wallet.

Pollack, 44, and friends are spending time at Stanza before going out to dinner in the North End. It’s early evening and things are quiet. They love to stop by for a couple of drinks and a cigar around this time. The place starts to fill up with the after-dinner crowd anytime after 9 p.m.

At one point, his friends demand that Pollack repeat the wedding story. That would be his wedding story. It brings tears to the eyes of cigar lovers. The wedding was held in Maine some years ago. There was a big tent for the reception. Next to it was a small tent that — who knew? — turned out to be for cigars.

Pollack says the existence of the cigar tent floored him. “I was completely surprised,’’ he recalls. “My wife had a big debate with her parents on this, and she won. I married the right woman.’’

If you’re talking hardcore, you’re talking Paul Giacalone, 49. The man drives the 32 miles from Gloucester four or five evenings a week to enjoy a fine smoke, a few drinks and the camaraderie he finds at Stanza. These are busman’s holidays because Giacalone owns the Old Cuban Cigar Factory, a small company in Middleton that makes cigars.

“This is home away from home here,’’ says Giacalone, who is divorced. “My socialization is here. It’s a great night out.’’

He and Riccio watch the Sox together like two happy, smoky clams. Asked if he’s worried that cigars will shorten his life, Giacalone says, “If it takes five years off my life, I’m OK with that.’’

source: boston.com

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