Only minutes after Prohibition ended in 1933, Angelo Cammarata, 19, served a 10-cent bottle of Fort Pitt beer to a customer in his father's neighborhood grocery.
Ever since, except for a 30-month hitch during World War II, the son of Italian immigrants has been tending bar and serving drinks. Guinness World Records dubbed him the longest-serving bartender a decade ago, and he's earned induction into Jim Beam's Bartender Hall of Fame and numerous other honors.
Now 95, he's calling it quits.
Known as "Camm" or "Ang," he's presided over Cammarata's Cafe through births, deaths and weddings — acting as a kind of psychologist, if not priest, for his customers for more than 70 years. The two-room bar he operates with sons John and Frank anchors the ground floor of a humble white cinderblock building in this modest suburban Pittsburgh borough. He and his wife Marietta, 92, lived in the second-floor apartment until several years ago.
"This is a good bar. All my customers here are family. We call them our family, our friends. We know them all. And they're all good," he said one day this week.
Lean of build, with much of his white hair, Cammarata looks maybe two decades younger. He wears neat tan trousers and a white T-shirt with the bar's name and "We support our troops" on the back above an eagle and Old Glory. Around his neck is a gold chain and crucifix.
He still drives — a maroon 2004 Cadillac — and while his hands shake a bit as he fills a glass mug with beer, he has little problem scaling a stool to pull an old picture from the wall.
The cafe is being sold in part because John, 59, recently had a heart attack.
It was time, the Cammaratas decided.
‘We’re a local bar’
Honey-colored, wood-paneled walls have aged with a patina of nicotine over the years. In the front room is the U-shaped, wood-grained laminate bar; the back room offers patrons a pool table, juke box, large-screen TV and a dozen small tables. Cammarata's awards are displayed alongside a handmade poster honoring local servicemen.
Missing is any kitsch of the kind found in chain establishments. It's unlikely a mojito or chocolate martini has ever been ordered here.
"We're not a classy drink bar. No. We're a local bar, shot and a beer," Cammarata declared. Basic bar food — burgers, pizza and wings are also offered.
Mike Smyers, 30, who lives a couple blocks away, is among his first customers, arriving one day this week shortly before noon. Heavily tattooed and taking a sick day from his family's heating and cooling business — "Footballitis," he called it — Smyers drank a vodka and orange juice, though beer would come later. A regular since he turned 21, Smyers loaded the jukebox with Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones.
His family and the Cammaratas are friends. He'll miss them behind the bar, but figures he'll continue coming. "It'll still be the same people," he said.
David Wagner, 54, of nearby Bellevue, an accountant on his day off, also dropped by for a beer. He'd been intrigued by the bar since he was a kid, but only ventured inside about eight years ago.
Since then, he said he's come to value Cammarata as a friend and enjoys his stories. Cammarata "is a gateway and a portal to a time long past," he said.
Cammarata recounted how he came to the business of selling beer just as Prohibition ended.
In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law allowing beer to be sold beginning April 7 that year. (It wasn't until that December that wine and liquor would be legal again.)
Cammarata's father, Catino, who came to this country from Villarosa in the late 1800s, had a grocery store with an ice cream fountain in Pittsburgh. The elder Cammarata figured with beer about to be legalized, there was money to be made.
So shortly before midnight on April 6, 1933, a truck loaded with Fort Pitt beer — a brand no longer brewed today — waited in the street.
"And the first strike of the clock, I took a case of beer off, took it in our grocery store ... took bottles out and started selling them, 10 cents each. Ten cents a bottle," Cammarata recalled.
The venture was so successful that the grocery was soon converted into a full-time bar. In 1935, his father built a new one — "the most beautiful bar in all the city," Cammarata said.
But it was torn down along with some 24 city blocks as part of an urban redevelopment program in the 1950s. In 1954, Cammarata bought the present bar, several miles away and seven years old at the time. In the 1970s, he sold it but continued tending bar, then bought it back a few years later.
He could have retired years ago, Cammarata says, but the bar was a family affair, enabling him to raise three sons and a daughter. John Cammarata recalled living above the bar for about the first six years of his life, then the family moved to a house. About 20 years ago, his parents moved back above the bar.
Angelo Cammarata says he has no regrets, and wouldn't do things any differently.
He allows that he doesn't drink much, maybe an occasional highball, bourbon and Coke, or wine — but just one.
His dad, he said, gave him some advice back when it became clear that beer sales were coming.
"He said, 'Beer is made to sell, not drink. Don't be your best customer.' And I took that to heart. I didn't care for beer," Cammarata said.
Now he just works part-time, putting in a couple of hours a day.
His last call will be sometime in the next couple of weeks, pending state approval to transfer the liquor license to the new owners. Afterward, he says he'll do chores at home and take care of Marietta, 92, who uses a cane or walker to get around.
A last-day party is being planned. Until then, drafts — Budweiser, Coors Light and local brew IC Light — are a buck; bottles, $2.
A chalkboard sign thanks customers: "We consider you a large part of our family."