Nick Varano’s knack for quality food, experience has led to success after success
By MEAGHAN CASEY
You can take the boy out of the North End, but you can never really take the North End out of the boy.
For restaurateur Nick Varano, opening Strega Ristorante on Hanover Street — two decades after roaming the street as a 12-year-old in search of the perfect loaf of bread — was in many ways a destined homecoming. The son of Italian immigrants, Varano lived in the North End most of his childhood before moving to East Boston at age 14. His mother, Rosetta, owned a beauty salon and cooked covetable Sunday suppers (which included her now famous meatballs). Varano got a neighborhood education not just at St. Anthony’s School, but at tried-and-true businesses like Mike’s Pastry.
“It was awesome,” says Varano, who now lives in Lynnfield. “You’d walk up and down the streets and every door was open.”
He tries to carry on that same welcoming spirit in the growing number of restaurants and cafés he owns and operates today.
“It costs nothing to be nice,” says Varano. “Smile. Treat everybody like you’d want to be treated.”
The mentality that the customer is king is something that’s never escaped Varano, even after 14 years in the business. As he poses for photos at Strega Waterfront prior to sitting down to chat for this article, he pauses to greet customer after customer with a quick hello or some light banter. When recognition dawns on a couple from Woburn — who are there midday celebrating a birthday — they immediately engage in conversation with Varano, who entertains them with a few stories, wishes them well and sends over limoncello. That’s just the kind of hands-on, gracious and generous restaurant mogul he is.
“It’s all about the experience,” says Varano. “Personally, I’m just as happy with a burger as I am with a gourmet meal, but you want the experience of eating out to be unforgettable. Make everyone feel like they’re a celebrity. The word ‘no’ should never be used. I tell my employees, whatever the request, make it happen. People don’t always get to go out all the time, so make it special when they do.”
As we talk (over the perfect trifecta of meatballs, cannoli and cappuccino), conversation flows from Varano’s idols such as fellow North End restaurateur Frank DePasquale to Hollywood greats like Al Pacino, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Robert De Niro — whose images, painted by artist Giovanni De Cutno, adorn the walls of the waterfront restaurant — to his biggest idol, his mother, who passed away in 2009 and who he says was “the greatest woman alive.”
And while his eyes might light up talking about Boston-grown celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and David Ortiz, who have become avid supporters of Varano and his restaurants over the years, the superstars in Varano’s world are the employees who have been with him since day one: Gianni Calabretti, Joe Esposito, Sal Firicano, Bruno Gagliotta and Carlo Ianniciello.
“They’re the backbone of this operation,” Varano says. “Sal has been the chef since we opened. He’s like a brother to me. I’ve been lucky.”
It wasn’t until 2003 that Varano made his restaurant dreams a reality with the opening of the original Strega. (The name comes from an after-dinner drink that’s said to bring good luck — something Varano doesn’t seem to be lacking).
“I wanted a place where I could eat for free,” Varano jokes. “What better place than the North End?”
Before that, he had been working as a car salesman, and long before that, he got his start as a teenager at his uncle’s deli.
At the time of Strega’s opening, “The Sopranos” was the biggest hit on HBO and Varano just happened to be friendly with one of the stars, Vinny Pastore.
“Vinny got some of the other cast members to show up for the opening and it made headlines,” says Varano. “After that, we had Celtics and [Red] Sox players coming in and it became that celebrity go-to spot.”
In 2007, Varano opened Nico Ristorante (named after his son), also on Hanover Street. Soon after, the late Mayor Tom Menino introduced Varano to developer Joe Fallon, whose vision for Fan Pier aligned with Varano’s own vision for expansion. Strega Waterfront opened in 2010, trailblazing the way for an array of new dining options in Boston’s Seaport District.
“My world changed at that point,” says Varano. “I just remember thinking, ‘this could be amazing.’” In 2013, with his sights set on the suburbs and with an Italian steakhouse concept helmed by Executive Chef Farouk Bazoune, Varano unveiled Strega Prime in Woburn. He brought that same concept back to Boston in 2015 with the opening of STRIP by Strega, housed in the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
Also in 2015, Varano opened Rina’s Pizzeria and Café (named after his daughter, Marina) on Hanover Street. He’s also opened Caffé Strega with three locations — one in Fan Pier (adjacent to Strega Waterfront), one on Huntington Avenue and one at Northeastern University. Additionally, the Varano Group has branded its own marinara sauce and espresso, sold in grocery stores. Never one to stay idle, he also has a new sports bar concept in the works and will be debuting Rosetta’s meatballs in bread cones at Fenway Park this spring.
Rosetta’s meatballs, which are the only family recipe Varano brought with him, are served with a scoop of fresh ricotta and remain one of the most popular items on the menu at both Strega and Strega Waterfront, but Varano also has some other favorites.
“The ‘Fettucine Strega’ with shrimp and scallops and the frutti di mare are to die for,” he says. “So is the veal chop.”
It was his love of food that led him to make a major lifestyle change nearly three years ago, at the urging of his daughter. He underwent gastric sleeve surgery that resulted in him losing 180 pounds and gaining a healthier approach to eating. Today, he’s still able to enjoy what he’s eating; he’s just having smaller portions.
“It was frustrating, especially the first year,” says Varano. “I’d have a couple bites of a cannoli and think ‘why can’t I finish this? I used to be able to eat three of them.’ But it changed my life for the better.”
Even though he’s faced with temptations all day long, he’s been successful in maintaining the weight loss. His typical week includes daily stops at each restaurant, starting in the North End and then moving to the waterfront, Back Bay and Woburn before returning home to Lynnfield by 10 p.m. In between, he also finds time to help out local charities.
When he does find the rare couple of hours to relax, Varano can usually be found at Fenway or the Garden. He has Red Sox and Celtics season tickets and usually catches a number of Patriots games and Bruins post-season games. He also loves to travel. At the time of meeting him, he had just come back from the Super Bowl in Houston and the Grammy Awards in LA. It was a busy February.
Varano and his wife, Michelle, have lived in Lynnfield since 2004 and both of his children graduated from Lynnfield High School. His son went on to graduate from Boston College and his daughter is in her third year at the University of San Diego.
“It’s a great town with a great school system and terrific neighbors,” says Varano, who relishes in the quietness of his home’s cul-de-sac location at the end of a busy day. He doesn’t rule out an expansion closer to home, calling MarketStreet “the greatest thing to happen to Lynnfield.”
As our conversation winds down and Varano slips off to the next location of the day, I’m left with the task of surveying some of the photos and art in his office and savoring the last few sips of cappuccino. And like any “Godfather” fan would do on the way out, I take the cannoli.