According to Salvatore Del Deo, the first shellfish warden hired in Provincetown, back in the 1950s, was a retired Portuguese fisherman named Joe Ventura. Before that, Joe had worked intermittently in a boatyard, helping to dig out fishing boats as they were hauled up for painting and repairs. He took his new job very seriously and scanned the West End flats daily to check for unauthorized clamming.
One day — a non-clamming day — he spied a miscreant out there with a rake and a basket. To his horror, it turned out to be Father Duarte, the town’s Catholic priest.
“Now, Joe,” Father Duarte said with a sheepish grin as he clambered up the rocks with his basket of clams, “I know it is not a clamming day, but the bishop is coming from Fall River tomorrow and he specifically requested fresh clams. Couldn’t you just look the other way?”
Joe was a devout Catholic, brought up to revere the clergy. But a job is a job.
“Father,” he said, in a soft, quavering voice, “you have your flock to tend to, and I have mine. Put the clams back.”
Sal Del Deo tells many stories about the Portuguese community he has known so well over his 75 years of living, working, and painting in this town (he was 18 years old when he landed here in 1946). What a coincidence: this also happens to be the 75th anniversary of the annual Blessing of the Fleet and the associated Portuguese Festival, this year on June 23 to 26. One of Sal’s many paintings of fishermen and fishing boats has been chosen for this year’s Blessing of the Fleet T-shirt. The title of the painting is Talkin’ Fish, but it is the fishermen in the painting who are talking to each other, each on his respective boat.
This Sunday, May 15, from noon until 4, the Red Inn is hosting “An Afternoon With Treasured Artist Salvatore Del Deo.” All are encouraged to join Sal and perhaps hear a few more of his tales of the Portuguese.
Sal has been called “a living legend,” and deservedly so. Many know him primarily as a founder and partner in Ciro and Sal’s restaurant from 1953 to 1962, and then the proprietor of Sal’s Place from 1962 until 1982. (Both restaurants endure and thrive under different ownership.)
Fewer people know that he also worked as a carpenter (he fixed Mary Heaton Vorse’s screen door) and for two winters as a fisherman to feed his growing family. Sal knows the world of fishing. In fact, he fished with one of the most famous — or infamous — of the Portuguese fishermen, Manny Zora, the “Sea Fox.”
Sal says that Manny was a “superb fisherman, who got the best fish,” along with another captain called “Dr. Foo” — another great Portuguese nickname. Sal had no telephone in those days, so he rose very early, lit his kerosene lamp, made coffee, and waited for the captain to pick him up — if it was not a “blow day.” That’s how he read War and Peace that winter.
Sal has a prodigious memory. He can tell you the names of all the boats and all the captains and most of the crewmen and their families — the intricate “cousinhood” of the Portuguese. From the majestic clutter of his studio, he recalls the old days of Lands End Hardware, when there was a back room where the retired fishermen hung out all day.
Sal’s late wife, Josephine, was a writer and activist in many important local causes, including the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961. Sal supported her in her work, as she did in his. Sal is devoted to his daughter, Giovanna, and his son, Romolo, an internationally recognized sculptor and a mainstay in his father’s life.
But it was art that was always at the center of his life, and it still is today.
Sal realized early on that Provincetown’s working people would be his subject matter, along with the natural beauty of the Outer Cape. Those working people, for the most part, were fishermen, and they were for the most part Portuguese.
How fitting that he should be celebrated along with the people and the life he so faithfully preserved for all time in his art.