Even in summer, the stores close by
5 or 6 o’clock. “No one’s open at night in
Spring Lake because no one shops, and
no one shops at night in Spring Lake because no one’s open,” says Matt Magyar,
proprietor of the Third Avenue Chocolate Shoppe. A rare exception, it sells
candy and ice cream cones until 9.
Sixteen-year-olds complain to him
that there’s nothing to do in town, and
Magyar responds, “That’s why your par-
ents like it here.”
Nor is Spring Lake a citadel of diver-
sity. You see lots of Irish flags flying in
summer—it’s heavily Irish Catholic—but
no rainbow ones. In several years of day
trips, I’d never glimpsed a black person
in this town of nearly 3,000 residents
and concluded there were none. That
proved untrue: According to the 2010
Census, there are eight.
Even though Cosimo Maolini rhapsodizes about how beautiful Spring Lake is
(he rhapsodizes about everything, really), for years he and his family have lived
a few miles south in less wealthy, more
diverse Belmar. “I like that my little one
goes to school with all types of people,”
his wife, Tara Campbell, says pointedly.
So why, of all the Shore towns in all
the world, did Cosimo walk into this
one? He’s 54, short and barrel-chested,
and works in jeans and patterned shirts.
If you tied his hands together, he probably couldn’t speak. On Saturday nights
after dinner, when most local storefronts
are dark, you can hear his favorite merengue resound all the way down the
block. He and his fellow businesspeople
seem cut from different molds.
It turns out that he came to Spring
Lake for love.
COSIMO’S FAMILY OWNED a casual seaside restaurant—the kind of place where
the menu is scrawled on a blackboard—
in the little town of Rodi Garganico, in
Puglia, in Southern Italy. Though he
learned to cook from his mother, Cosimo had other ambitions and went to art
school. (The paintings that cover most
of Café Artiste’s walls include his own
landscapes.) Soon, though, he joined
the economic exodus. In Southern Italy,
“either you work in your family restaurant or you go up north,” Max Maolini
Moving to more prosperous Sienna,
Cosimo worked as a waiter—an esteemed position in Italy, he points out—
in a restaurant on the famed Piazza del
Campo. Tara Campbell, a Marymount
College senior studying abroad, had an
American friend who was dating one of
Cosimo’s colleagues. They all went out
one night in 1988, and that’s amore.
For six years after their wedding, the
couple remained in Sienna (Max was
born there), but it proved a tough place to
live. Americans couldn’t easily find jobs;
Cosimo was working crazy restaurant
hours; both their families were far away.
So in 1995 they emigrated to Campbell’s
hometown, Spring Lake, where they had
three more children.
Three years later, Cosimo opened an
eatery there simply because he was pining for a decent espresso. “I like my coffee and is no coffee in Spring Lake,” he
explains. He found a local business partner, Dan Waters, and began selling coffee,
panini and gelato from a rented storefront on Third Avenue with 18 seats. Waters still opens Café Artiste each morning
and handles all the paperwork.
Soon came Cosimo’s first tussle with
the authorities. He placed a small bench
on the sidewalk so he could savor his
espresso in the sun.
“The guys come, said ‘Take it away,’”
Cosimo recalls, meaning the borough’s
code-enforcement officials. Local ordi-
nances, he was surprised to learn, didn’t
permit sidewalk furniture. “You only do
business inside in Spring Lake. No signs
outside. No tables.”
Spring Lake has had an ambivalent
relationship with commerce. In fact,
says Bill Skuby, owner of a local mens-
wear shop, “enclaves like this don’t want
everyone traipsing through. They don’t
want a lot of outsiders.” (Skuby made
news last fall for a truly offensive win-
dow display depicting Barack Obama as
a tribal chieftain in a loincloth.)