Mystic, Connecticut: Small Towns

Mystic, Connecticut is home to the Mystic Seaport Museum, a sort of watery version of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It’s a treasure, even if it is a scrubbed and sanitized version of a 19th century seaport town. There’s always something going on there, including a spring sea songs festival.  

Mystic Seaport is so famous that many visitors skip its host town. That’s a mistake. Mystic is actually a village that’s part of the city of Groton. It has a population of just 4,200 but it feels much bigger because it’s surrounded by Groton, New London, Stonington, and other settlements that collectively contain about 275,000 residents. Mystic, though, gets my vote for the most coastal charm. It has 3 historical districts and a thriving downtown. There is also an aquarium, an art museum that’s separate from that of Mystic Seaport, a historic house museum, and a cantilever swing bridge that lots of people photograph. It’s really just an industrial-style arched bridge that’s sort of ugly, but it connects the Groton side of the village with the Stonington side.

Above all, the bridge is a visual reminder of Mystic’s past. The Mystic River–the name is a mishearing of the Pequot word missi-tuk–empties into Long Island Sound. The Seaport Museum may be cleaner than it would have been during the great Age of Sail, but this slice of Connecticut has always looked to the ocean. A sub isn’t a sandwich around these parts. Anytime military budget cuts are discussed, Connecticut politicians mobilize! Groton has a submarine base and is home to General Dynamics/Electric Boat, which builds subs. Both employ a lot of people. In New London you’ll find Pfizer, a firm that practically defines the term “Big Pharma.” New London is also home to the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, an expensive private institution, and a University of Connecticut branch campus whose tuition is roughly two-thirds cheaper.

I mention all of this because they also symbolize the region’s class divide. Like Mystic Seaport, downtown Mystic is gentrified. The outskirts are dotted with the ranch houses and the humbler homes of those who work in the region’s industries, as well as the grand homes of inherited riches and manicured developments filled with McMansions for new-money professionals. The movie Mystic Pizza got that right.

Though it’s easy to bemoan gentrification, those parts of town are nicer places to hang out. Name another village of 4,200 that has 80 shops downtown. They exist (and come and go) largely by offering things hard to find on Amazon. There are untold numbers of gift shops, artisan galleries that encourage browsing if not buying, and numerous specialty shops. Some of the more unusual ones sell Polish pottery, Tibetan goods, marine supplies, spices, and handmade chocolates. My return trip will definitely include a trip to the Mystic River Chocolate Café.

Mystic is a good foodie town. I’ve not been there, but I’ve heard good things about Bravo Bravo, an Italian eatery, though there are so many pizza shops, you might want to branch out. Some of the downtown restaurants are pricey, but there are several pubs, a microbrewery (Barely Head), 3 bakeries (Lighthouse, Li, and Sift), and a butcher shop if you’re in a DYI mood.

What everyone wishes to know about, though, is Mystic Pizza. In the interest of public service, I checked it out for you! First, though, don’t believe everything you see in a movie. The joint shown on the screen was a set in a building a few doors down from the actual restaurant, which is owned by the Zelepos family. (They really are of Portuguese descent.) It’s been on Main Street since 1973, but the movie brought so much spillover fame that the interior was redone to approximate the set. Hey, why look a gift slice in the mouth? The inside is a bit darker than the faux site, but a TV screen on a back wall shows the movie on what appears to be a continuous loop. Walls are also festooned with pictures of celebrities, especially classic film stars and baseball legends.

Mystic Pizza sells thin crust pies. My wife, two friends, and I devoured a large pizza with vegetables (onions, green peppers, mushrooms, broccoli pieces) and pepperoni. (Yeah, it’s an odd combo, but you try pleasing four people!) We split fries as an appetizer that were sprinkled with herbs and came to us crispy and piping hot. The pie dough was baked to perfection and the ‘za was tasty, though my palette failed to detect a “special sauce.” It didn’t rock my world enough to keep me from trying another nearby joint, but the experience was a blast.

Rob Weir


Mystic Pizza a Tasty Film 32 Years Later

Mystic Pizza (1988)
Directed by Donald Petrie
MGM, 105 minutes, R (Off-screen sex. Really???)

A recent trip to Mystic, Connecticut inspired me to take another look at Mystic Pizza, which I hadn’t viewed in 30 years. Most of it was actually filmed in surrounding towns, but no matter. It is now remembered as Julia Roberts’ breakout role and Matt Damon’s screen debut (though his part was a small one).

The film was rated R back in 1988. That’s astounding. Who was shocked to imagine that unmarried young women would have sex? (There is no nudity.) This and other parts of Mystic Pizza are dated–check out Julia Roberts’ big-bowed dress–but there is an innocent charm to it. Grab some ‘za and watch it. Note that I called it “innocent;” take that R-rating!

The movie revolves around three young women, the Araújo sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their good friend Jojo Barbosa (Lili Taylor). The names are Portuguese and both ethnicity and social class factor into the film. Despite the close bonds between the three, they are quite different. Kat is a Type A egghead bound for Yale in fall. She works at Mystic Pizza with Daisy and Jojo, and also works at Mystic Seaport and babysits. Despite her calm exterior, she’s is worried about being a working-class kid at Yale, where she’ll be dependent upon scholarships.

Daisy is Kat’s polar opposite–a good time party girl with a great figure but a seemingly empty head. Her mother rags on her and with reason. Daisy is tough, wild, and maybe even a bit sluttish but, as in most romantic comedies, this is more implied than explicit.

There’s nothing ambiguous about Jojo’s love of sex. She and boyfriend Bill (Vincent D’Onoforio) go at it like rabbits wherever it’s appropriate and often where’s it not. Their engagement has been so long that Bill, a blue-collar fisherman, presses Jojo to set a date. In a nice twist, he wants to make an honest woman of Jojo in a good way. Jojo has major cold feet.

Of course, all three are “good’ Catholic girls whose parents–a single mom in the Araújo sisters’ case–want the best for them, but are not exactly candidates for guardians of the year awards. That role falls to Leona (Conchita Ferrell), the owner of Mystic Pizza. She not only supports the three as if they were her own daughters, she’s as protective as an enraged lioness. Each of the three has a summer crisis. Kat finds herself falling for Tim (William Moses), a married architect whose delightful daughter Phoebe she babysits while Tim’s wife is gone for the summer. (Uh-oh!) Daisy is drawn to Charles (Adam Storke), a rich guy who may really like her but might be just slumming it with a hot Portuguese chick. And Jojo is just a mess over the entire question of marriage. Leona has her own worry: There’s a rumor that the Fireside Gourmet (Louis Turenne) is in the area. A bad restaurant review from him can cause a place to founder.

Admittedly, none of this sounds like Jane Eyre by the Sea. One might cynically cast it as a remake of Cinderella, but it’s a tad more complicated than that. It is what it is: a set of quirky romances held together by some won’t-tax-the-brain comedy and some truly poignant moments. I liked this film for two reasons. First, it makes sharp class distinctions. Along the Connecticut coast there is quite a gulf (pun intended) between the waterside mansions, Yuppie enclaves, and country club set, and those living in ranch houses who work in the shops and on the sea. Give credit to Tim Suhrstedt’s cinematography for wordlessly pushing class distinctions right before your eyes.  

What really drives Mystic Pizza is the acting. The four central female characters–and how often can I type that?–are terrific. When the film came out, it was billed Gish’s starring role. She is terrific as Kat, whom she plays with a bifurcated sense of self. On one hand she’s kind, smart, and responsible; on the other, she is vulnerable, naïve, and looking for love. In 1988, I wouldn’t have predicted that Julia Roberts would be a big star, but now I get it. She is the mistress of the “big” scene, whether it’s a comic turn, an outburst of rage, or a feet-first leap into impetuous waters. To call Lili Taylor a spitfire is descriptive, not demeaning. She was/is the kind of actress who leaves it all on the screen and her energy level makes you look for a blown gasket or two. Conchita Ferrell was also wonderful in a role that demanded subtlety one moment and brashness the next. Aside from D’Onoforio­–who depicts a guy whose honorable intentions are frustrated–the male roles won’t dazzle you; this movie puts women front and center.

Like the Fireside Gourmet, I liked what I saw and tasted. A “secret sauce” is mentioned in the film, but it’s no secret to me: Take four talented actresses, turn them loose, and they’ll transform a thin script into a seaside feast.

Rob Weir


Catch Turner Exhibit Before It Leaves the USA

J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors From Tate [sic]
Thompson Exhibition Building
Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
Through February 23, 2020
[Click on image for larger size]

How many musicians, athletes, and actors can you conjure who were proclaimed gifted at an early age, believed their press clippings, and lived like spoiled brats for the rest of their days? The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a bit like that, except he really was as good as billed. How often does a working-class kid with a Cockney accent get admitted to London’s Royal Academy of Arts at age 14, or get to exhibit as a 15-year-old? How often does such a person go on to produce more than 32,000 paintings?

J. M. W. Turner was a true enfant terrible for all of his days. He never married, but sired two daughters with his housekeeper. He was also known for behaviors that some charitably labeled eccentric, but fall more into the realm of the vulgarian: sloppy snuff habits, shabby appurtenances, social ineptitude, and treatment of others that ran the narrow gamut between disinterest and abuse. The portrayal of such behaviors is about the only thing that makes Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner (2014) worth watching.

For all of that, J. M. W. Turner might well be the most accomplished landscape painter in British history. There are just a few weeks left to catch a show of 93 Turner watercolors and 4 of his oils. You should make it happen if you humanly can; Mystic, Connecticut is the only place in the entire country in which these loaners from London’s Tate Gallery have been or will be on display. After February 23, they will be packed and sent off to Paris before returning to the Tate.

Burning Ship
Turner is known for dramatic skies and seascapes. He was so talented that many of the watercolors on display are more akin to watery sketches or studies for his oils than finished products, yet they are nonetheless riveting. His Burning Ship (1830) is one such work. At first it seems rough and tossed off on a whim. It probably was, but look deeply through its monochromatic exterior and you’ll see a lot going on. Similarly, his Harpooned Whale (1845) is at a glance just a wispy swirl of red, but it too is much more than initially meets the eye. Another splendid piece is Wreckers Coast of Northumberland (1836), where we see a team readying itself for what is more likely to be a salvage rather than a rescue mission. As for sea and sky, gaze upon a study of that name (1845) and you will see how Turner wrenched so many shades from somber hues. For more drama, there is Whitny (1824), with a stationary hillside castle standing in contrast to the choppy waters and leaning boats beneath the cliffs. 
Sea and Sky
Lagoon at Sunset
 The Mystic exhibit also displays a landlocked Turner. He loved architecture and travel. He produced studies of churches, Roman ruins, and other such details. Venice was a favored destination, as seen in Venice: Looking Across Lagoon at Sunset (1840) and his depiction of the famed Bridge of Sighs. Switzerland was another frequent destination. Lake Lucerne was the subject for one 1842 work; Lake Geneva for several others. Of course, he also captured his native England in works far from the sea, examples of which are Arundel Castle Upon River Arun (1824) and Sunset across the Park from the Terrace of Petworth House (1827). He even dabbled in a bit of painterly reportage in his Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1856).

Funeral of Sir Thomas...

Artist and Admirers
For all of that, one can’t help but think that the most revealing of all the works on display is his 1827 The Artist and His Admirers. A painter–himself in all likelihood–stands at his easel as a several well-dressed ladies look on. Turner loved to play the genius and one can imagine his brush stroking both paint and ego. That ego is also on display in several works whose color has drained away. They need not have done so; Turner insisted on using a carmine pigment that his contemporaries told him would fade. He assuredly knew that, but that didn’t mean he gave a fig!

Rob Weir