La Dolce Varano

You talkin’ to him? Everybody else is. Just a few short years after setting up shop in the evolving North End, Nick Varano has everything he ever wanted: A line out the door of his restaurant. Pockets full of cash. Celebrities and powerful friends on speed dial. All he wants now is more.

Nick Varano and his guys were still abuzz over their latest trip to Vegas. The marble suites at the MGM Grand. The hundred-dollar breakfasts. The Playboy bunnies dealing blackjack at the Palms. And Nicky, of course, tugging out that brick of twenties to take care of whatever the casinos weren’t comping. The highlight of the trip for Varano’s friend Frank De Pasquale had been the Billboard Music Awards. “The seats Nicky got me—front row, center. All the main acts were sitting behind us. On my right was Flavor Flav, on my left was Carrie Underwood. All these hip-hop stars, the new ones, which I don’t even know their names. But Nicky knows them all. He has connections all over the world.”

Varano, who owns the North End restaurant Strega, says he’s in the business of never saying no. That has made him a lot of money, and a lot of friends. “If I’m eating filet mignon,” he told me several days after returning to Boston, “or going to the Mike Tyson fight, guess what? My friends are eating filet mignon, too. They’re sitting in the front row, too.” It was a late Friday afternoon, and Varano and I were making our way through heavy expressway traffic in his 2007 Mercedes S550. As we crawled along, his cell phone rang. It was a guy named Nando, a friend from Vegas, and he needed a favor. It was short notice, but could Varano squeeze in a group of VIPs that night? “Eight people?” Varano asked him. “Karl Malone and, now, is it Joe Kennedy as in Joe Kennedy?” Yes, he told Nando, of course he could accommodate the party.

Varano was excited when he hung up, less about Kennedy or the former NBA superstar than about someone else Nando had mentioned. He immediately called his childhood friend John Zirpolo. “Guess who’s coming in tonight?” he said. “Gene Kilroy! He don’t even know I own the joint. Yeah, Nando sent him in. I’m gonna ask him where the pictures are with Wayne Newton.”

Six years ago Nick Varano was a failed used-car salesman. Today, as the owner of Strega, which overflows with business despite sitting on the sleepier end of Hanover Street, he is a one-man Rat Pack. He covers his 5-foot-9, 300-pound physique with only the most exclusive labels. “Nobody my size wears the clothes I do,” he told me. “I buy everything Zegna, Versace.” He has personal hosts at Foxwoods and the MGM Grand in Vegas. And wherever he goes, he says, he’s treated with respect. “Line out the door? There’s a table. I never wait. It feels good.”

At Strega’s grand opening in June 2003, Varano shut down the block and persuaded Vinnie “Big Pussy” Pastore—who somewhere along the way had become yet another of Varano’s star acquaintances—to bring along other cast members of The Sopranos. Celebrities, executives, and politicians have been coming ever since, as evidenced by the photographs posted on the Strega website, which show the proprietor posing with Mike Tyson, John Travolta, someone named Tommy “Sneakers,” and several “special friends.”

An evening at Varano’s restaurant is a bit like spending time on the set of a Martin Scorsese picture. When I visited, Varano was outfitted in a beautifully cut pinstripe suit that somehow summoned straight lines to his bulky frame. He greeted his customers with handshakes and, occasionally, a kiss on each cheek. An a cappella group wandered the small, low-lit room, doo-wopping Italian standards. Enormous glasses of red wine were filled and refilled. Wide-screen televisions hung from the rear wall, looping Mafia movies like The Godfather and Analyze This. It was a Tuesday night but every table was occupied, and laughter echoed through the restaurant. Varano leaned in close in order to be heard above the bustle and said, “Mitchell Modell is here. You know, ‘Gotta Go to Mo’s’? He’s a great friend.”

With that, he was off, slapping his customers on the back, remembering their names, encouraging them to order off-menu. He moved easily despite his mass, buoyed by the same frenetic energy that caused him, when describing a delicious leg of lamb, say, or a number he hit on the roulette wheel, to scrunch his eyes in delight and press his fingertips into his thumb. At 36, he is wealthy and increasingly powerful, an upward mobility reflective of his talent for divining, then sating, the desires of other people. As he worked the room, though, Varano projected the faintest air of the performer’s ennui, the same old act for the same old crowd. His friend John Zirpolo, standing with me by the door, said Varano had always been restless. Back at St. Anthony’s elementary school on Prince Street, Zirpolo said, Varano’s constant chatter in class would exasperate the nuns. When they kept him after school as punishment, his classmates used to gather under the windows of the detention room.

“Free Barabbas!” they cried, evoking the Biblical figure whose release from confinement spared him execution. “Free Barabbas!”

As the dinner crowd began to thin out, Varano, Zirpolo, and I sat down for a meal of our own. Soon, an attractive young brunette approached from a table behind us. Her name was Kristen, and when she bent down to talk to Varano, her blue sweater revealed alarming amounts of cleavage. Her voice went girlish as she told us what a wonderful time she and her two friends were having. “Joey!” Varano called out. “Give these girls a drink on me.”

“Thank you, Nicky!” Kristen squealed, pecking him on the cheek before returning to her table.

The key, Varano told us, is to make people feel special. And you can’t be cheap. He held up a bowl of oversize green olives. They cost an extra $25 a bucket, he said. “Look at these, they’re like steaks!”

Varano first learned the food business as a boy at Victor’s Variety, an East Boston deli and convenience store owned by his grandfather and uncles. He lived above the store for a time after his parents divorced, and worked there when he quit high school in the 10th grade. He spent much of his late teens and early twenties gambling and having a good time. (Zirpolo recalls a cruise ship vacation when Varano had half the boat in hysterics as he sat in a wading pool and, to the tune of the old Heavy D and the Boyz anthem, sang, Girls, the girls they love me, ’cause I’m the overweight lover Nicky V!) He was often broke, but resolved to get a full-time job when his girlfriend, now his wife of 12 years, became pregnant. He found work at a used-car lot. Hungry, as always, for more, he decided before long to open a dealership of his own and persuaded Zirpolo to back him financially. It was a disaster.

“He was a sucker,” Zirpolo said. “He didn’t want to screw anybody. He was a mush.” Hard-line negotiating, number crunching, they just weren’t his style.

“I was a laydown,” Varano acknowledged. His five years in the business weren’t a total washout, though. He befriended a man named Frank Pizzarella, a fellow 300-pounder who was also in the used-car trade and rode a Harley and owned Ristorante Rosina in the North End. It was time for a change. Varano tapped a few resources and bought Pizzarella out, transforming Rosina into Strega. Varano, at last, had found a way to turn his love of a good time into a viable occupation. Strega was an immediate smash.

“Here is what people have told me,” Varano said as a giant platter of antipasti arrived at the table. “You gotta strike while you’re hot. You got to do it now.” Nearly four years after opening, Varano explained, Strega is maxed out. At just 56 seats and nearly always full, there’s no room to grow. And anyway, the exhilarating part had been risking everything on the restaurant; day-to-day management wasn’t as much fun. His plan is to take the Strega concept beyond Boston. In fact, the day after I caught up with him, he was traveling to New York to check out a restaurant for sale on East 58th Street. He was also considering Las Vegas, where he’d been scouting a location near the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Or maybe he’d just bring in a few investors and roll out a string of Stregas all at once.

A couple of tables away, Mitchell Modell was getting ready to leave. He’d come to Strega one night two years ago, when he was expanding his sporting goods chain into New England—some people he knew at Reebok told him he had to try the place—and had liked it so much he called the Zagat guide on the spot. Varano had made him feel at home, like he’d known him for 25 years, so Modell decided to inform him of what he was doing wrong. All the photos of Varano and his celebrity friends on the back wall had to come down. Modell wanted high-def televisions instead. Then he marched outside and started uprooting the potted flowers he felt weren’t working, either.

Modell stopped by our table and Varano introduced us. “Boston magazine?” Modell said. “You guys gave me that award, Best Store. I appreciate it.” He reached into his jacket pocket and came out with a handful of $25 Modell’s gift cards. “Here,” he said, “so you don’t have to pay retail.” I told him I couldn’t accept them, but he persisted. “Just put them on the table,” Varano said, smiling thinly. “We’ll figure it out later.” I was embarrassing him in front of a friend. I thanked Modell and took the cards. Modell embraced Varano, told him that he loved him, and walked out the door. When he was gone, Varano picked up the cards and, rolling his eyes, dropped them into his pocket.

One afternoon, a couple of days after our dinner, I met Varano outside Strega. We walked the few blocks to Caffè Graffiti, where he often begins his day with cappuccino and the Herald. He was excited about the restaurant he’d just gone to see in New York, a place called Paper Moon Milano, right across from the Four Seasons. But every time he started to tell me about it, someone else on Hanover Street wanted to say hello.

Nicky, howahyuh?
Come sta, Nicola?
I gotta talk to you about that thing, Nicky.

He knew everyone, as though he’d spent his entire life in the North End. Varano had, in fact, attended elementary school in the neighborhood, and his mother once owned a beauty shop in the area, but the truth was he hadn’t lived there since he was 12. (He moved to East Boston as a teenager, later lived in Revere, and now owns a gigantic home in Lynnfield.) It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but Varano somehow projects an old-country persona importante aura at the same time he runs a sophisticated modern business. He has become, in some ways, the face of the new North End, that glitzier, somewhat slicker Little Italy whose emergence has accelerated with the completion of the Big Dig, a project that, whatever its other repercussions, has reconnected to the rest of the city a neighborhood that had grown quite comfortable in its generations of seclusion.

Seven of the nine businesses that opened in the North End last year were boutiques hoping to capitalize on the fact that it is now accessible by foot from Faneuil Hall, Government Center, and the TD Banknorth Garden. Wealthy professionals have bought up most of the available housing, leading to a construction boom as developers race to erect new residences on the waterfront. Varano believes the transformation has been good for the neighborhood, opened it up to new people and new ideas. In 2005, he and Frank De Pasquale, who owns the heralded North End restaurants Bricco and Mare as well as Gelateria on Hanover Street, cofounded the North End Chamber of Commerce. The group, according to its website, is committed to the “revitalization” of the neighborhood, and to “chang[ing] the face of the North End.”

A lot of neighborhood business owners, even those catering predominantly to locals, approve of these developments in a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of way. “There was a stigma in the North End—the old North End,” said Luigi DeMaro, who has owned Caffè Graffiti for 15 years. “You would never go to a restaurant where you didn’t know someone. Now, we have an unwritten code of quality. We don’t want any bad places.”

Others, though, resent what they perceive as the chamber’s arrogance, and wonder whether there’s a place for them in the North End’s glorious future. They tend to keep these complaints quiet, however, because of the chamber’s connections. “Nick knows everybody and anybody,” Modell told me. “It’s amazing. People come up to him like he’s the mayor. Actually, I’ve seen the mayor come up to him.” (Indeed, when Italy’s World Cup soccer trophy was brought to Boston last year, Mayor Menino went to Strega to celebrate the occasion.)

Varano and I sat down at Caffè Graffiti and ordered cappuccino. “I truly believe the era of the mom-and-pops is over,” he told me. “This neighborhood is becoming the new Newbury Street. We’ve given the people what they want.”

Stirring a packet of sugar into his cappuccino, Varano said he’d been mesmerized by the space he’d seen in New York. The numbers, though, were staggering. The guy who owned the restaurant was ready to retire. He wanted $1.2 million for the place, after which Varano would have to come up with $27,000 a month in rent, plus a piece of his gross if it exceeded a certain amount, and another $100,000 a year or so in other costs. Even if he could swing the finances, the lease was up in just seven years. What happened if he made the place a big success and the landlord jacked up the rent? He’d have no leverage. And none of that was taking into account the competition he’d be facing. “There’s a million guys there doing what I do,” he said, twirling a piece of biscotti through his cappuccino foam.

All in all, Vegas was the safer bet. His many friends out there kept telling him his concept was a can’t-miss. The problem with sure things, though, is that they don’t pay much; the long shots are where the big scores lie. New York was offering something Vegas—and Boston, for that matter—could never match: the chance for Nick Varano to become a bona fide player. “Maybe I just take a shot, gamble,” he said. “A guy can sit there all day and wait for aces. In life, unless you act, you get eaten up. I want to show everybody—fuck it, I want to show people a guy with a ninth-grade education can make it.”

It was lunchtime now, so we left the café and headed to see Varano’s friend Maurizio Badolato, a gambling enthusiast and former waiter who years ago hit a million-dollar scratch ticket and used the winnings to buy Ristorante Limoncello on North Street. The meal ended up stretching through 90 minutes and several courses. Frank De Pasquale, who showed up half an hour into the feast, scolded Varano about how much he was eating. De Pasquale had once gotten Varano to try a diet, but it lasted only four days, coming to an end at a fast-food joint.

“I called you from the drive-through,” Varano said to De Pasquale, “for support.”

“Yeah, he called me for support,” De Pasquale said, nodding. “I said, ‘Nicky, don’t do it.’ He said, ‘Frank, I just can’t drive by this place. My car went there automatically.’”

De Pasquale seemed less concerned about Varano’s other indulgences. “I look forward to waking up just to spend time with him,” he said, telling me how, on the recent Vegas trip, a couple of the guys had checked out a high-end jewelry store in the Palms casino owned by a friend of Varano’s named Mordechai Yerushalmi. De Pasquale had noticed a glittery Breitling wristwatch worth several thousand dollars. “I was saying, ‘If I can put a few things together, maybe I’ll buy it after Christmas,’” De Pasquale said. Two days after they got back from Vegas, Varano showed up at De Pasquale’s Gelateria carrying a sack. “I got something in the bag you might like,” he told him. Inside was the very watch De Pasquale had admired at Mordechai’s. “What can you say about a guy like that?” De Pasquale said, pulling back his sleeve to reveal the massive Breitling.

After lunch, Badolato flipped up the tablecloth and he and Varano played gin for an hour. A few other middle-aged men arrived, carrying decks of cards and chatting about that evening’s fight schedule. When we walked outside, Badolato was leaning against a delivery car, smoking a cigarette. Varano invited him to go to the Celtics game later on but Badolato said he had to work. Varano seemed listless. He asked him what he was doing until then. Badolato exhaled a thick swirl of smoke. “I’m just waiting for the night,” he said.

Later that afternoon, Varano parked his Mercedes at the side entrance of the TD Banknorth Garden, where he’d arranged to take delivery of a signed Tedy Bruschi jersey and Michael Jordan poster he was buying as a present for his 12-year-old son (he also has a 10-year-old daughter). “This is actually a 2007,” he said, running his hands over the steering wheel. “I just got it in March, but I have a great relationship with the guys at Herb Chambers so they’re getting me the same car in 4Matic so I can drive it in the winter.” The delivery man appeared and Varano got out to help him put the cartons into the car. He then peeled a substantial number of twenties from his roll, leaving a few extra for a tip. The delivery man’s attempts to protest the large gratuity were immediately cut off. “Don’t say nothing,” Varano said, turning away. “That’s it.”

As we drove to Varano’s house to drop off the gifts, I asked him whether, with all the celebrities he knew, there was anyone he still hoped to meet. “Robert De Niro,” he replied. For whatever reason, that got Varano talking about Gianni Russo. “You’re gonna say, ‘Who’s Gianni Russo?’ right?” Russo, it turned out, was the actor who played the lowlife wife-beater married to Sonny Corleone’s sister in The Godfather. Varano met him when he came into Strega after singing at a festival a couple of years ago. They’ve been friendly ever since. Varano flipped open his cell phone and showed me Russo’s entry. Then he pressed the call button.

“Gianni, Nick Varano,” he said into the phone. “How are you, handsome?” Varano brought up the Paper Moon Milano in New York. It was going to be very expensive, he told him. He turned on the speaker and Russo’s deep, raspy voice filled the car. “I don’t give a fuck about money,” Russo said. “You put a big lounge in there, it’ll be perfect.”

“Listen,” Varano said, “you know I don’t have to tell you, I get this place, you can do whatever you want in there, sing one night a week, two nights a week.”

We arrived at Varano’s house, unloaded the gifts, and, after a quick tour, headed back for the city. As we drove, Varano told me about a friend of his from Eastie who he believes should have gotten a writing credit on the film A Bronx Tale, which is one of his two favorite mob movies. (The other, appropriately, is Casino.) This seemed the right moment to ask whether, growing up in an Italian neighborhood, Varano had ever known any Mafiosi himself. “If you’re a baker, and you stay in the bakery,” he said by way of answering, “you’re gonna meet bakers.”

It was dark now, and we were crossing the Tobin Bridge. Boston was spread out before us, downtown aglow in city lights. Varano exited the highway, made a couple of practiced lefts and rights, and was quickly back in the narrow streets of the North End. As we approached his restaurant, he confessed that the routine at Strega could be constricting, even a little boring. “For me,” he said, “it’s about the life, being known.” I asked whether it was possible to ever be known enough. After conquering New York and Vegas, what would be left? “It’s the rush,” he said. “It’s the high. It’s the chase. Once you’ve lost your drive, it’s over. You’re dead.”

Free Barabbas.