Is Boston Ready for Nick Varano?
It’s the first thing Nick Varano says to me, because it’s the first thing he says to anyone—Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, random guests at his restaurants, and I’d assume the Pope, if he ever walked into one of Varano’s restaurants when the big guy was around. Which would absolutely happen if the Pope’s people were to ask the hotel’s concierge where the action is in Boston. Down at his flagship restaurant, Strega Waterfront, Varano keeps three valets at the ready to park the Mercedes and Escalades—the white one’s Nicky’s—and whatever luxury wheels those sports stars are driving these days. If you go, don’t be a jerk—flip those guys a sawbuck. They work hard.
What happens next is up to Nick Varano, because when you meet this guy, you enter his world. And that’s what I did, one Monday night this past January.
We meet at Varano’s glitz-wrapped eatery Strega Waterfront, where he hoists his 5-foot-9(ish), 250-pound(ish) body deep into a banquette, takes off his newsboy cap, leans back, and gives me the side-eye while extending a hand. “What’s goin’ on?” No mistaking his suit—it’s custom Zegna. When he offers that first meaty handshake, his sleeve rides up to reveal solid gold links sitting snug on his wrist. (He got it from his Jewish custom jeweler in Vegas. “Here’s his card, if you want a $12,000 watch, or he’ll make you something nice.”) Nicky’s top story tonight is that he won a million on blackjack in Vegas. Over the next few weeks, that figure will morph, shedding zeros.
At first glance, Varano comes off exactly as advertised on his restaurant billboards scattered along Route 1 in Saugus, or his commercials on NESN. He’s the hefty bon vivant, the howyadoin’ come to life, full of wiseguy aphorisms, always said with a shrug: “I treat people the way I want to be treated. That’s it, you know? It doesn’t cost nothing to be nice to people, you know?”
He’s only been in the restaurant business for a little over a decade, but it feels like he’s been here forever when you see the dozens of photos that show him mugging with the late James Gandolfini, Kevin Garnett, and whoever else shows up at Nick Varano’s Strega Prime in Woburn; Nick Varano’s Strega Ristorante in the North End; Nick Varano’s Nico wine bar in the North End; Nick Varano’s never-got-off-the-ground TV show The Strega Life; Nick Varano’s Famous (yet ill-fated) Deli; and Nick Varano’s soon-to-open pizzeria Rina’s.
For a more-nuanced understanding of the Varano approach, consider the nearly 8-foot-tall ads for his upcoming steakhouse, Strip, that appeared in the windows of the Park Plaza Hotel last March, depicting a half-naked (or partially clothed?) woman sprawled on a satin-sheeted bed, ogling a chunk of raw meat dangling on a chain a few feet from her head. The copy read, among other things: “Ambiance. Alure [sic]. Steak.” Charles Draghi, chef at the nearby Italian restaurant Erbaluce, broadcast the ad on social media. After a brief media uproar, the controversial spot vanished. When asked for comment by Boston.com, Varano’s team responded, “The image did not meet the standards of the owners of the restaurant; in addition to that, the panel did have a typo on it.”
The standards of the owners, however, are on full display at Strega Waterfront, where the barmaids and hostesses wear high heels and reveal ebullient cleavage. A few weeks before my first meeting with Varano, I visited the bar mid-afternoon and expended immense energy trying to get a watery Manhattan from one of these women. But now in January, escorted by Varano himself into the dining room, the waiters, all male, are more than responsive, ferrying plates overflowing with Parm and steak with great purpose. In Varano’s world, women adorn the bar and food is men’s work.
Nicky Varano comes precisely drawn—high-def and 3-D—like the protagonist a second-year film student would conjure up in a Red Bull– and Ritalin-induced fury over several days following his first screening of Casino. He loves his wife, and his son and daughter (who study at Boston College and the University of San Diego, respectively). Sure, he likes his strippers and his blackjack, too. These are simple pleasures from simpler times. In the age of the Koch brothers and fracking and North Korean hacking, Nick Varano’s flaws are finite and knowable.
And yet, when the waiter uncorks a beautiful bottle of Italian wine and Varano sticks to still water, he begins to take on more dimension. He’s never had a drink in his life, he explains. He wants to stay sharp—when other guys get soft, that’s exactly when Varano shines the brightest. Later that night, at Strega Waterfront, he’ll continue working the room, hanging briefly with the pro-hoops player who’s been strategically seated at the back of the dining room to shield him from zealous fans. Varano will tell a story, then duck into the private dining room where eight jacked guys swap CrossFit stories and supplement tips, lit by a massive flat-screen TV. He’ll admire a clip showing one of them clean and press what looks like 1,000 pounds, then head back to the main room to introduce himself to the five middle-aged couples—ladies to the left, guys to the right—on their seventh bottle of chianti, celebrating a birthday. “How’s it goin’?” As he turns to order the table a round of limoncello, the women exchange elated looks. A visit from Nicky Varano! And somewhere in Medford, five babysitters curl up on sectionals, texting their baes.