In Memoriam: Robert Willis, Owner of Lakeville’s Cafe Giulia
Restaurants occupy a very special place in the life of our rural towns because they bring us together, providing a convivial alternative to quiet nights at home. Restaurateur Robert Willis created just such a place (twice) in Lakeville, CT called Cafe Giulia, which happened to serve very delicious and unfussy Italian food. As the chef/owner, Willis made a restaurant in his own image: cosmopolitan yet casual, serious but unpretentious. The bargain $9 carafe of wine he offered was the sign of a guy whose primary motivation was to please people and make them feel they belonged. He had proven himself as a restaurateur in hyper-competetive Brooklyn in the late 1990s with his Vaux Bistro. Ten days ago, he was behind the stove in Cafe Giulia’s open kitchen and doing the rounds in the dining room, schmoozing and making sure everybody was enjoying themselves. You could not tell that he was sick, so it came as a shock last Thursday when we learned that cancer had beat him before he even had a fighting chance. Rural Intelligence asked some of his friends, colleagues and customers for their remembrances.—Dan Shaw
“Robert Willis was a lover of coffee, cars, good food, art, architecture, photography and a supremely social being. He has had many professional lives— architect, chef, race car driver—and he loved his current incarnation as a restaurateur and we loved him for making Cafe Giulia the cozy and delicious restaurant it was.
He loved to be at the center of the table at the coffee shop—he could talk about everything, and he rarely spoke ill of anyone. He had a wide circle of friends, which I found my self included in, He was always interested in his friends. He adored his children McCullough and Jack, and he loved his life. He was a man who tumbled, rolled and came up fighting in tough times. Robert called my house last Saturday evening to tell me the news about his diagnosis, I was not home so he told my husband all of the plans he had to fight the cancer. I was traveling that week, I sent him a note on Sunday saying that I would do whatever I could and would see him the end of the week. Shockingly that did not happen, he is simply gone, spirited away into the heat of the unknown. It is unfathomable. Goodbye Robert we will all miss you.”
—Anne Day, photographer, Lakeville, CT
“I knew Robert intimately on both professional and personal levels, and in either case, I knew I had a friend. We would often meet for coffee in early morning hours to talk about our joys and frustrations of having a restaurant in the Tri-State area. I know he was proud of Cafe Giulia’s reincarnation, as he should have been because of the focused effort he put in giving it a new life at its current location. It’s hard to believe I will no longer see him at Back in the Kitchen, dipping his scone in his cappuccino with his big blue eyes intently focused on the conversation at hand. He was a wonderful, caring man, and I shall miss him.”
—Serge Madikians, chef/owner Serevan, Amenia, NY
“GK Chesterton said, The aim of life is appreciation. Robert showed his enthusiasm for living by becoming accomplished in a series of passions: architecture, design, photography, food, tennis, billiards, boats, race cars. He didn’t need to be the best in the world at these things but he did want to be exceedingly competent. He was an aesthete whose love of design made him appreciate the antique car in which he drove noisily all the way to Cornwall to share with me the first iphone, hailing it “the coolest gadget ever made.” Robert was a connoisseur of low culture, knew the art of a latte, the French fry, and which James Bond movies were the coolest. Of his many passions two were lifelong devotions: his children, McCullough and Jack.
His love of the art of conversation made him the honorary mayor of the coffee shop. His appreciation of people made him compassionate and discrete as a listener. He loved to laugh. He digested and accepted extreme personal upheaval faster than anyone I’ve known, and spoke about being vulnerable with the right ingredients of humor, grace and optimism. Few extroverts have the capacity for such gentle thoughtfulness and intimacy.
Out of love and necessity he made a great little restaurant in Lakeville. Café Giulia had the unmistakable imprint of Robert’s personality, his design, the simple creative menu, his favorite car parked subtly on the lawn. He created a convivial place where people came to enjoy good food and company. It was significant to him to show his children that they could thrive by working hard at something they loved. He was a good man and will be sorely missed.”
—Brendan O’Connell, artist, Cornwall, CT
“Cafe Giulia had a soul because it was Robert’s home, his creative work space, and stylish setting where we had the honor to share in his delicious talent with food. There was a seamlessness between the kitchen and dining room that he maintained by being with you in both places with a warm and yet cool sophistication that will long be remembered. Robert did not have very long to enjoy his dream creation. But create it he did. And for that we are joyful.
We remember asking for grappa after a meal in the new bistro, the waiter said no, their permit did not allow it to be sold. A minute later Robert appeared with a small glass of it saying he could not sell it, but hoped we would enjoy it as a friendly offering. It was good, and will be long remembered.”
—Robin and Allen Cockerline, Whippoorwill Farm, Salisbury, CT
“Robert and I were morning coffee, catch-up-and-discuss-everything-on-earth-friends, and had a lot of great belly laughs together. He was such a fixture in the village, and there are only a handful of such people, when you think to yourself: “Hey there’s Robert . . . right on schedule,everything is well in the world”. He had fine-tuned Cafe Giulia to a fare-thee-well and it was at the top of the list of “go to” restaurants for our guests here. Robert coming out of the kitchen and checking on his patrons well being…chatting, and then moving on is something that I will always remember . . . and miss.”
—Pete Hathaway, Ragamont, Salisbury, CT
“Robert and I shared a capacity for hard work and a love of good food. We bonded over the growing and prepping of Puntarelle, a bizarre green served in Rome that I tried growing last season - not very successfully. When we last saw each other, just days before he passed, he spoke not a word of his illness; instead he discussed the herb garden he had just put into his restaurant and how it felt to finally have a very successful restaurant. I think of this as I hoe around this year’s crop of Punterelle; the hard irony of life, and the heart of a man whose passion was feeding people and nurturing plants for as long as he could. Rest in peace, Robert.”
—Maria Nation, screenwriter, Sheffield, MA
“I met Rob a few years ago when he popped into my newly opened book shop to admire my new hanging lamp—he had just hung several like it in his newly decorated Cafe Giulia (Mark I) and thought we must have something in common! From our first meeting he was curious about my business—and how it was doing—while sharing his own thoughts about his new ‘baby.’ While chatting away he discovered that I had a new found interest in motor racing and immediately pulled out his cell phone to show me a photo of a beloved Lola (since sold) as though it were a newborn—I totally understood and he didn’t miss a beat in describing it.
My wife Lucinda and I were keen to try the new restaurant and when we did were very impressed—we sent friends whenever we could and made a habit of going there for a late quiet meal after holding an event in my shop. Over the last couple of years I would see him at Lime Rock, in Cafe Giulia, waving from the stop sign in front of my shop, or just around. When Cafe Giulia (Mark II) opened, we were right back in. The first time, we brought friends from Sharon who hadn’t been before and again had a lovely time—no surprise! He had the very good habit of walking through the dining room during your meal, checking in with friends and introducing himself to newcomers—it was good business but seemed effortless—he truly cared. He always gave the impression that he loved his restaurant, loved pleasing people and was just a happy guy—you always remember people like that.
Many years ago, at a memorial service for a friend, cards were given out with John Donne’s famous poem ‘No Man Is An Island’—something I had read countless times—and was struck by the lines: ‘Each man’s death diminishes me/For I am involved in mankind.’ Rob was a big part of our little corner of Heaven and now he’s gone—we’ve lost a friend and a neighbor who was unique in this world.”
—Darren Winston, bookseller, Sharon, CT
Both Jill Goodman and I are saddened by the passing of Robert Willis More than a great Chef, Robert was a great person! He very quickly became a close friend to us. Compassionate, kind, and involved in life, from racing to cars to food. He lit up the lives of those around him,and like a streaking shooting star that lights up the night, he is gone to quick. But like that star, he will remain with us the rest of our lives.
—Marshall Miles, Robin Hood Radio WHDD
“Our hearts are full of sadness at the loss of our beloved Robert. We are so glad it was a peaceful, painless and loving departure. Robert’s fervent wish was to be home with those he loved—and that was more than granted. While he spoke often of getting back to Maine, home as they say, is where the heart is, and that was Lakeville where he was front and center.
Robert lived to proudly witness his son Jack graduate, to revel in the success of Café Giulia, to savor his daughter McCullough’s companionship at the restaurant, to enjoy the Sweet William “salon” on weekend mornings with a patchwork quilt of friends and regulars, and to drive full throttle in his yellow race car. He accepted the gritty truth of impending death with equanimity and courage, such an enormous burden lightened by so many friends’ constant support. He lived to know that he was loved by a boatload of people. Like Seinfeld, Robert left us at the top—at the height of professional success, personal fulfillment and pride in his wonderful children. He was a man in full. We will miss him terribly.
—Licia Hahn, Lakeville