Spy Games

Tonight isn't the busiest night Pizzeria Regina has ever had. That would have been about two decades ago, when MIT ordered a pizza for each of its 1,200 incoming students and the bakers made pies through the night. But tonight's no breeze. An order has just come in for 45 pizzas, and the kitchen is having trouble keeping up.

“I'm sorry, we're backed up a half hour,” waitress Lynne Power tells a woman at a table of nine who has just had the bad grace to complain. “And don't roll your eyes at me,” she adds in her Boston accent. “I don't make the pizzas. I just serve them.” The woman quickly finds something very interesting to stare at on the rose-colored Formica in front of her.

“Lynne, six!” yells another waitress from across the room, grabbing a piping hot pizza from the kitchen window.

“She's the reason I drink,” Power mutters under her breath as she apologizes to a table of laughing college students. “I'm going to get someone on table six to shut her up, and I'll be right back to take your order.”

Power's brand of candor is typical of the waitresses here, who look like they were born with their order pads already in their hands. It's also as essential to the atmosphere of this popular North End eatery as the black-and-white photos of the neighborhood that hang on the walls and as the pizza itself. Expat Bostonians have been known to drool at the mere mention of Regina's cracker-crisp crust and spicy sweet sauce and the garlic- and herb-infused olive oils on each table, meant to be poured liberally on every slice.

Just don't call the waitresses rude. When this magazine said that five years ago, 10 of them shot back with a letter: “What some people consider 'rude,' others call ambiance,” they wrote.

That “ambiance” makes Regina's unique among restaurants in this city and regularly draws crowds that line up on the sidewalk outside. It also made it more difficult for Power and three of her fellow waitresses to come forward with allegations that everything wasn't so family-friendly at the pizza joint.

The four women filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination charging that they have lived with sexual harassment on the job for years; this month, they plan to refile those accusations as a lawsuit in Superior Court. The charges detail a “hostile environment” of dirty talk and groping endured by the waitresses at the hands of their longtime manager, 53-year-old Domenic Strazzullo. They claim Strazzullo even spied with security cameras on unsuspecting patrons. Strazzullo, through his lawyer and in a statement filed with the state, denies the allegations. Boston Restaurant Associates, Regina's parent company, declined to comment for this story but in a statement denied that any harassment had taken place.

As the Central Artery falls to the jackhammers of the Big Dig and the North End is rejoined with the city, the lawsuit serves as a symbol of the neighborhood's changing face. This is a section of town that revolves around food and family, with its own code of silence.

The day after the news broke, the waitresses found themselves both criticized for airing the neighborhood's dirty laundry and praised for having the courage to speak up. “It was just one thing after another,” says Power. “Hell broke loose, let me tell you.”

When I meet “the girls,” as their coworkers call them, for an interview at a North End café, the manager makes me promise not to mention its name. The women, too, are jumpy. When a man in a leather jacket with slicked-back hair loiters a little too long by the espresso machines, Patty Oppedisano jokes, “If we say, 'Hit the deck,' you know what that means, right?”

A middle-aged woman with straight blond hair, Oppedisano has worked at Regina's for 17 years. Power started soon after her, and Joann Nighelli has been there 14. Another server who has complained, Cynthia Stewart, absent this day because she is recovering from breast cancer, has worked at Regina's for 15 years. The women are all cigarettes and wisecracks, with at least one dye job between them. They are also the most visible face of Regina's.

“Myself and Patty, we were down in Pompano Beach, Florida, in our bathing suits, and people recognized us,” recalls Power. “They wanted us to send them pizza.”

The two not only vacation together; they live next door to each other in Somerville. “We're neighbors — unfortunately,”
Power says with a mock sneer.

“To say this is my second home is an understatement,” says Oppedisano.

“I see more of these girls than I do my own family,” Power adds. “When Cindy was sick, we terrorized the hospital.”

For those reasons, more than any other, the women were not eager to quit their jobs. “It was a good job,” says Oppedisano. “It was just this one guy.”

“All the girls would call to find out if he was the manager that day,” says Power, “so they could prepare themselves.”

According to the complaint, Strazzullo frequently shared detailed accounts of pornographic movies he had watched the night before, many of them involving sex acts with animals. When it was time to close, he allegedly would try to tune the restaurant's television to the Spice Channel.

“He could turn anything into a conversation about sex,” says Power. “You could be talking about — oh, I don't know — this coffee,” she says, motioning toward the mug on the table in front of her, “and he would find something sexual about it.”

When one of the women was petulant, Strazzullo would say she needed to “get laid more often,” according to the complaint. The banter was different from the kind of ribbing the women share among themselves, they say. “We always tease each other,” says Power, “but we're always smiling when we do it. He was never smiling.”

Strazzullo, the complaint goes on, sometimes stood near the bar so that the waitresses would have to squeeze against him to get by. “It bothered me he couldn't move his body,” says Nighelli, the quietest of the women in the case.

Once, he allegedly swiped his hands across Power's breasts. She says she complained to the assistant manager. “He turned around and brought it right to Dom,” she claims. “He said, 'Hey, Dom, what should we do with this?'”

When Oppedisano complained about Strazzullo at a staff meeting, she allegedly was taken off the schedule and hasn't been put back. “He said, 'It's my fucking schedule, and I'll do what I want,'” she says.

Sexual harassment can be a difficult thing to prove in any workplace, especially one where verbal jousting is de rigueur. In his statement, Strazzullo “vehemently denies the charges of sexual harassment,” saying he never even discussed sex in front of the women. The restaurant's statement allows that Strazzullo “can be intense, loud, and inflexible” and may use “garden-variety profanity.” But the women were “not shrinking violets” themselves: Power in particular, it claims, would hold “kiss and tell” sessions about her own “sexual exploits.” Oppedisano, the statement goes on, was only removed from the schedule after she demanded unreasonable shift changes. And none of the women, it says, ever complained to management.

One patron of Regina's who is friendly with both Power and Strazzullo says he never saw anything untoward but adds that he wouldn't call the girls liars. “If the majority of people say something is true, it must be true,” he says, “but Dom has a right to defend himself, too.” But another regular says Strazzullo often stepped over the line. “Comments about body parts, discussions about sexual activity — I've watched him grab waitresses' butts,” says this patron, who has befriended Power, sometimes accompanying her to Red Sox games, and asked to be identified only by his first name, Steve. “When I first heard about this, I said, 'It's about time.'”

Steve's sister, Pam, also a regular, says she was impressed when she heard about the lawsuit, given how reluctant many people would be to come forward. “My gut reaction was, something must have happened” to set them off.

Something did, the waitresses say in their complaint, and it had to do with their customers. It began last fall when they started suspecting Strazzullo of eavesdropping on their conversations.

“Watch yourself,” suggested a member of the kitchen staff. “He reads your lips [on the security monitor].” After that, the women found excuses to go into the back office, where the monitor sat alongside shelves of napkins and pizza boxes. Sometimes, they allege, they found Strazzullo wasn't watching them at all but was looking at other women in the restaurant. One day, Nighelli explains, “I walked in and he had focused [the camera] on a woman like this.” With her hands, she makes a box around her breasts.

Eventually, the waitresses compared notes. They had all seen Strazzullo adjusting the security monitor, switching from a split-screen with four small images to one large one, zooming in on the body parts of female patrons, they say. Once, Power says, he joked about whether a female bar patron was wearing Kmart or Victoria's Secret underwear. (Strazzullo denies ever using the camera “in an inappropriate way.”)

In their complaint, the waitresses assert that one camera hangs over the bar and is well-positioned to peer down the front of women's blouses. One time, they say, Power caught Strazzullo looking down a woman's blouse; Power immediately helped the woman adjust her shirt. Strazzullo, she says, boasted around the office that he had a tape of one waitress touching another woman and showed the tape to coworkers. The women had had enough. “We couldn't sit there and talk friendly with customers,” says Power, “knowing that he was out back getting his sick perversions out of them.”

But the waitresses also knew that such serious charges require proof. If Strazzullo had his videos, why couldn't they set up their own surveillance system? Power talked to several police officers, who said the women could record the manager's actions as long as they didn't use sound. (It is illegal to record conversations in Massachusetts unless both parties agree to be taped.)

One day before her shift, one of the waitresses (they won't say which one) sneaked into the back room and placed a digital still camera, operated by remote control, on a wine rack that faced the security monitor. The photos they ended up with are grainy, but on one of them you can see the back of a man's head and a TV screen on which, with the right coaxing, you can make out a pair of breasts. According to the waitresses' lawyer, Herb Holtz of Holtz & Reed, the time stamps on the photos match times on the tapes when the screen is black. Holtz concludes that Strazzullo covered his tracks by switching off the recording while he was ogling customers.

It remains to be seen whether a jury will find the waitresses' evidence persuasive enough to conclude harassment occurred. Strazzullo has been given a leave of absence from Regina's while the restaurant conducts its own investigation. Meanwhile, the women have demanded $3 million to settle the case, a figure that prompted a spokesman for the restaurant to call Holtz a “sexual harassment bounty hunter.”

“I liked that,” the attorney fired back. “My friends told me I should get a vanity plate.” But the bigger issue, he says, is that the women “did what the restaurant refused to do and still hasn't done. They stood up for Regina's patrons, which is both an uplifting and sad commentary on this case.”