Paul Wilson: Hamilton's curious Blue Grotto back from dead

No city has a cave like this, at the top of the stairs on John Street North. It's over the Capri Restaurant, which celebrates its 50th birthday this month with free food and wine.
The back of this old postcard for the Blue Grotto says: "Signor Bruno, who has successfully realized a secret dream, invites you to enter the cool blue oasis of Italian atmosphere in this new and different dining room in Hamilton, Ontario." (Capri Restaurant)
Elena and Bruno Cariolato opened the Capri Restaurant fifty years ago this fall. (Capri Restaurant)

There are two places called the Blue Grotto. One is on Italy’s magical isle of Capri. The other is up an old flight of stairs in downtown Hamilton.

Grotto means cave, and the one over there has electric-blue waters running through it. Thousands of tourists in rowboats explore it every year.

But the Blue Grotto here has been forgotten, off limits for decades. In a few weeks, however, our cave will open for business again.

That in itself is reason to celebrate, but there is more. The Blue Grotto is on the second floor of a rubble-stone 1800s building on John, just north of King, that houses the Capri Restaurant.

And the Capri turns 50 this month. Owner Sal Fiorino has already ordered the cake. There will be free food and a glass of wine for all who care to help him mark the moment. This is supposed to happen all day on Tuesday, Oct. 29, but you might want to phone before you head over.

Sal Fiorino is weeks away from opening the Blue Grotto again, sealed off for decades. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Bruno's smiling up there

All going well, the Blue Grotto opens that following weekend. And somewhere up there, a fellow named Bruno Cariolato will be smiling.

He and his wife opened the Capri in the fall of 1963. And not long after, the Blue Grotto opened upstairs. It was Bruno’s dream, and built to last.

The ceiling stalactites and rough silver-flecked walls are not just plaster construction. They are shaped with steel mesh and covered with concrete. This grotto featured a full bar, stage, costume room and dance floor. There were waterfalls and fish, plus a stream flowing down the middle of the floor.

The grotto later became home to the Hamilton Press Club, sadly long-since defunct. Then the space became a comedy club. When it vanished, 20 or 30 years ago, the cave got sealed off. 

Kurt Russell and cast enjoy Hamilton's Blue Grotto in his new movie Art of the Steal. Soon you'll be able to frolic there too. (Art of the Steal trailer)

Anna knew the kitchen

It was nearly 10 years ago that Sal and his family bought the Capri. His mother Anna had been working in the kitchen there since the 1960s, so they knew how to keep that good Italian food coming.

I met Sal three years ago, when the Doors Open people had gotten him to agree to unlock the cave for a weekend. He gave me a tour, I wrote about it, and he had a thousand people trek up those stairs.

He had already figured it was time to bring back the Blue Grotto, but that clinched it. He hoped to have it ready that fall. But a year passed. And another.

Every now and then, the Blue Grotto did open for a few days when Hollywood came calling. Woody Harrelson has been here. And most recently, Kurt Russell for a crime-caper comedy called Art of the Steal, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The trailer is out now and, for an instant, the Blue Grotto’s in it.

The old Blue Grotto signs from the third-floor attic will soon get dusted off. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

A room for the real people

But Sal knew he just had to get the room open for the real people. He has a day job, project manager with Dawn Victoria Homes. So it was hard to find the time. But this year, 50th anniversary looming, there could be no more delays.

He has men at work right now, putting new tile and fixtures in upstairs washrooms that haven’t seen a customer for a quarter-century. New tables and chairs arrive within the week. There won’t be a stream anymore, but the old waterfalls have been tested and are ready to flow.

Once or twice a month, on a Friday or Saturday, Sal will open the place up to the general public. There will be music on the original Blue Grotto stage. He’s already lined up a lively eight-piece Latin act. The room has great acoustics.

But mostly the Blue Grotto will be a place to hold events for groups of anywhere from 20 to 80 people. Banquets, Christmas parties, birthday parties. “And who knows,” Sal says, “maybe somebody wants to get married in a cave.” 

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  | @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?