For more than 50 years Pete Ciacchini and his wife owned and managed a bar that was once a 1920s speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. The bar, which had not undergone a facelift since at least the Eisenhower era was formally registered as the Colonial Inn, but was always known to its patrons as Sneaky Pete’s. “Sneaky” because as legend has it the bar, situated at the time on a remote side country road near the venerable Kawkwa Club, was the ideal place to meet up with someone who was not a spouse for a romantic interlude by the roaring fire in the deep brick hearth.
In more recent times, the Ciacchini’s ran the place together by themselves on Friday and Saturday evenings only, serving routine cocktails and the oft-ordered “Sneaky Pete” – a concoction of brandy, crème de menthe (or was it crème de cacao?), and heavy cream blended to silky smoothness to resemble a benign milkshake (albeit one that could twist the head of an unsuspecting patron who downed six or seven of them.) Pete mixed the drinks and his wife Laura delivered them to the drinkers sitting at the tables draped with checkerboard tablecloths beneath the fake Tiffany lamps.
Pete was the archetypal bartender dressed in a white shirt and black tie, apron wrapped around his bulging midriff. He loved to bullshit with the regulars who sustained the business while casting glances of disdain for the occasional transients who made ill-advised attempts to rearrange tables to accommodate parties larger than four, and to request drinks directly from Pete at the bar instead of waiting for Laura to take their orders at the tables.
Although the signature “Sneaky Pete” was always in high demand, Pete refused to premix a large batch of the gooey drink, opting instead to “hand-craft” each one individually. For this reason – and his penchant to bullshit to distraction – patrons at the bar might have to unduly wait for service. I believe Pete tested his customers’ patience in an experiment to separate the worthy from the non. Not that the service was the attraction. Nor the quality of mixology for that matter. Most of the liquor choices were stale brands mostly found in the wells of most geezer bars, and Pete was certainly no expert on the finer points of mixing classics like the Sidecar, Old Fashioned, Sazerac or Negroni. Hell, I doubt a bottle of Campari ever crossed the threshold at Sneaky Pete’s. Once he concocted a dirty Martini with pickle juice because he had run out of olive juice – content in the belief that all condiment runoffs were the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me he had made a Bloody Mary with ketchup and a dandelion.
No, the reason Sneaky Pete’s was always an iconic place to drink and socialize was its genuine authenticity, its faithful homage to another era. It was a throwback to a time when jukeboxes played great music, transactions were made in cash only with no receipts, restrooms offered condom vending machines, and drinks featuring fancy-schmancy ingredients were a thing of the future. There were no distracting signs defiling the walls explaining the Heimlich maneuver or listing the maladies of drinking whilst pregnant. The place wasn’t ADA compliant, had no sprinkler system, no beer taps, no intrusive TV and no stinky food bubbling and popping in a nearby fryer. Just pure 1950s “Mad-Men” ambiance. It was not unusual to walk into the bar and find couples dancing to Cole Porter.
A couple years ago, Laura hung up her black and white waitress uniform for good, and shortly after Pete mixed his last Sneaky. The bar closed and the couple retreated to the attached residence. I’m sure Pete retired under duress.
I drove past the joint on Swanville Road last summer and was surprised to see a notice affixed to the door indicating that someone had applied for a liquor license. Could it be someone was going to reopen Sneaky Pete’s? And if so, to what extent would they screw it all up?
Happily, Sneaky Pete’s has reopened under the same name (no, not Colonial Inn) and the new owners have done minimally invasive adjustments, deciding to maintain as much of the old ambiance as reasonably could be expected. The old crank cash register and ornate wooden shelves remain. The layout hasn’t changed, and the big hearth still burns sweet hardwood. I suppose it was necessary to serve food (for cash flow, and maybe to acquire the Pennsylvania liquor license and operate on a full-week schedule), and although they serve what you’d expect along the lines of pub food (this is Erie after all) the new Sneaky Pete’s also offers some ambitious dinners on a menu that changes weekly. Expect to find something along the lines of sautéed chicken breast topped with Southwest flare and goat Cheese served with corn and poblano chutney. I can’t vouch for it yet, but in a town where people eat boiled turnips with a spork, poblano chutney is a bold move.
What I think sets the new Sneaky Pete’s apart from other Erie estabs is its solid assortment of charcuterie. They offer cured meats and cheeses from the major producing regions, and apparently have good supply connections. I had the jamón ibérico which is always a nutty treat – and at Sneaky’s the portion is very generous and the price seemed close to what you might pay if you bought it yourself (assuming you could find it.)
Check out the place if you ever get sick of the ambiance at Applebees and their Little Friskies tuna salad appetizer.