NORTH ATTLEBORO — Fifteen years ago, Steve Costa couldn’t place North Attleboro on a map.
In fact, it was a business partner who suggested he look to expand his popular South Boston restaurant into the area.
“I said, ‘Sure, where’s North Attleboro?’” the Boston native said.
But in the time since Café Porto Bello opened at 6 North Washington St., the local Italian restaurant has become an important part of the downtown’s slow revitalization and an iconic part of a strip of cafes and diners that residents adoringly call “Restaurant Row.”
So when news that Café Porto Bello would close broke earlier this month, customers lined up to say their goodbyes.
“People would show up with lists of other places for me to look at,” Costa said. “Some of our customers were crying. They said, ‘You did my son’s christening or graduation.’ It’s really tough. I didn’t want it to end this way.”
Costa said he was forced to close the restaurant’s doors for the last time Saturday when his landlord did not want to renew the lease.
He said things had gotten rocky on North Washington Street when another restaurant with a similar concept, Table at 10, opened next door. Costa decided he would move on from the restaurant and was looking to sell it to one of his top cooks, with the hopes that it would continue under the same name and concept with the same staff.
Things were starting to take shape when he was told his landlord would not renew the lease as the place had been rented to someone else.
“We had no other option but to close,” Costa said.
The building is owned by Paul Markis, who also owns and manages Table at 10.
He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Costa said he looked at a few potential places to reopen nearby but said the costs to build out the infrastructure needed for a restaurant were too high. So Café Porto Bello, for now, is closing its doors in North Attleboro.
And the restaurant’s absence will surely change the downtown landscape.
Its closure leaves five stores along a single strip of the middle of the downtown now vacant, including an undeveloped lot where the Odd Fellows building used to stand before it was razed after a fire in 2014.
Several more closed storefronts are scattered across North Washington Street as North Attleboro struggles to revitalize the once booming area. Town officials are working on plans to make the area more accessible through changes to sidewalks, better lighting and additional parking — and hope to use the downtown strip as a centerpoint for economic development — but those plans are years off at best.
And there’s one less restaurant on Restaurant Row.
But Café Porto Bello regulars can take a little bit of respite knowing that the restaurant isn’t completely off the grid. Another Café Porto Bello is just an hour away in South Boston.
And though it’s a bit of a drive, it’s one Costa made every day.