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Institution

Nick Mancini’s long twilight has ended. He died last Tuesday at the age of 80.

For those of you who don’t know the West End of Saint Paul, Mancini’s Char House is nothing less than an institution. His boundless energy and grace made it what it was through nearly 60 years, growing from a humble bar into one of the most renown spots in Saint Paul. People come there from all over not just for the steaks, but for the style and service served with every meal. It is a guaranteed great time.

My first memory of Nick came when I was working on a political campaign across the street. Nick loved to dabble in politics, and while he took care of everyone he was sure to take care of the public servants he knew served Saint Paul well. I was there one evening when he carted over a great big tray of food.

“Eat it! No, it’s no problem. If you don’t eat it, I’ll just throw it out. You might as well enjoy it!”

He always downplayed his charity, making it almost a sin if you didn’t take it. So we all tucked in with the plates and napkins he thoughtfully brought along. It was great after a hard night of calling people and related politicking. But I had to ask a colleague one question:

“These are great stuffed shells, but I didn’t know they were on the menu at Mancini’s.”
“Just eat” was the reply. And we did. Boy, did we eat that night.

Nick often gave away food that way, after church or just when he felt like it. A lot of people came to wonder how he made money that way.

He made enough. Enough is as good as a feast. Everything about Mancini’s is a feast.

Gradually, though, Alzheimer’s Disease took it’s toll on Nick. The grace was still there, but the energy slowly drained away. His sons Pat and John took over the running of the place for the last few years, reassuring everyone that at least there was still a Mancini in charge.

I recently attended a community dinner at Mancini’s – after all, where else would you have an auspicious event in the West End? Of the many moving things that night, one that stayed with me was the sight of John Mancini coming out of the kitchen to greet everyone. He was in a damp tee-shirt, and had a look of exhausted “I still have so much to do” mixed with a proud “This is my place.” As he leaned over the serving station on his elbows, his tireless grace said one thing more loudly than anything else. This is Nick’s kid. This is a chip off the old block. No matter what happens to Nick, we will always have a Mancini’s.

That was the great gift that Nick gave to us all. He created an institution at the heart of the West End that we know will be a part of us all even after he is gone. A spirit like his is more than the steaks and the good times. Mancini’s belongs to all of us, throughout the community.

That is what it means to be an institution.

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