Is Boston Ready for Nick Varano?
Varano’s world is clearly divided into bets he can win and bets he can’t. He doesn’t bother with the latter. And he only bets big. “I took a shot,” he says, by which to suggest the entire process of building a restaurant empire. “In life, if you don’t lay it down, you can’t pick it up.” It’s one of two mantras he lives by. The other, I later learn: “What’s a cup of water to a drowning man?” which he interprets as, Don’t bet small.
“No, really,” he says, now that he’s finished ordering, in Italian, tonight’s feast for our table. “I remember complaining to my friend Anthony a long time ago, ‘How come I never make a $20 number?’ And he goes: ‘Are you playing a $20 number?’ I was a kid and I says, ‘No, I play a dollar, two dollars,’ and he says, ‘How are you gonna hit it? Right? ’Cause you gotta lay it down to pick it up.’”
Regarding the female magazine editor who wants to write a story about him, Varano suddenly sees a sure bet.
Our mutual friend has taken a powder, and Varano leans in close.
He looks squarely at me with not unpleasant almond-shaped eyes, framed by neatly trimmed brows. He has a deep chin dimple that anchors his Mediterranean intensity in a way his thinning hair no longer can.
He says, “I know all about you.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I know how old you are,” he says. “How much you wanna bet I can guess your age?”
It’s a hustler’s game. He’ll lowball just enough to charm me, but not enough to give away the con. In the interest of journalistic inquiry, I offer up $5. He guesses a couple of years off in the flattering direction. I tell him he’s wrong. “Nah, nah. No way. No way,” he says, shaking his head, peeling a five off a massive wad, one of four he pulled out of his jacket.
“You gotta pen?”
He writes on the bill, “WTF YOU LOOK GREAT.”
And scrawls his name: Nick Varano. He’s just warming up.
It’s night two, over crabmeat and avocado, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp and pineapple, and one very large meatball, again at Strega Waterfront, before we head out to the Celtics game, where Varano has courtside seats. The dishes just keep coming. Used to be, Varano could eat any guy under the table—steak and lobster tails, stone crab and eggplant Parm, carpaccio and mozzarella. That was before he had three-quarters of his stomach removed six months ago. “That’s it, it’s gone,” he says. “And it’s not coming back.” He still orders big, but now he eats like a Park Avenue socialite. So do I. Which means during our time together, lots of food goes back to the kitchen accompanied by injured looks from the waiters. Don’t worry, they’ll be happy when they get the tip—Varano presses twenties and hundreds into every open palm he sees, leaving devoted hostesses, waiters, card dealers, and valet drivers in his wake. (At one point during the reporting of this article, he even tried to tip me for bringing him good luck at the blackjack table. When I declined his offer, he asked, “Why do you hate me?”)
He drops a few glistening shrimp on my plate and begins to tell me about how he did it, how he went from a used-car salesman shilling “shitboxes, but nice shitboxes, you know?” to owning seven restaurants.
The first Strega, in the North End, he tells me, is a hit, thanks in part to the appearance of some of The Sopranos cast members at the opening—an occurrence that Varano coordinated through a Foxwoods casino host. Varano immediately took to playing the impresario and the boss: “I was at that place seven nights a week,” he says of those early years. “I get there two in the morning, I leave there one in the morning. I couldn’t wait for the next day.”
“Your wife must’ve loved that,” I say.
“She actually did,” he answers. Full stop.
Varano explains his unlikely success thusly: “You know, listen—we all serve the same stuff—soup and veal and pasta, all made a little bit differently, so I just wanted to separate myself. And how I did that was growing up around casinos and gambling.”
In Varano’s universe, casinos and restaurants are fruits from the same tree. After years of playing at Foxwoods, and in Vegas and Atlantic City, he’s known in the gambling world as a premier player, not quite a whale. He gets flown on private jets out to Vegas, and enjoys endless perks, such as comped meals at high-end joints and ringside tickets to the fights. But he doesn’t want to talk about any of that. The last time someone wrote about his skills at the tables, he had the IRS, his lawyers, and his accountant crawling all over him.
But he will tell me what happens when his luck runs out. “When I lose, I roll myself up like a cannoli in the hotel room and then watch nine movies in a row, put the air conditioner up to freezing, and I get under the blanket like a fucking turnip and I watch, you know, sad movies by myself. I’m watching Beaches with Bette Midler.” Now he’s running with it, hoarse with laughter. “When I lose, I’m looking for a reason to cry. Aw, you get upset. Know what I mean? You get upset. You say why, why, why? God—Italian people, at least like me, you blame God when it goes bad. You say, Let me do this and I’ll never do it again. Please, I swear on my mother’s eyes. My mother’s been blind for 20 years,” he says with a wink—and dead for five. “I swear on this, I swear on that, please let me and I’ll never do this again.”
He breaks from eye contact for a moment to steal a glance downward, then asks me, “Are those two colors?”
“Your nylons—are those two colors?”
No, I explain, they’re all black, just different textures. “A bit provocative,” I add.
“No comment,” he says, suddenly regarding the bread basket with great interest.
Does the gambling support the restaurants or vice versa? Varano’s friend, the Phantom Gourmet’s Dave Andelman, tells me over dinner at Nico later that week that Del Frisco’s and Legal Sea Foods down on the waterfront nearby are rumored to pull in a whopping $20 million each per year. So maybe it’s the restaurants.
“But if you’re not scared, you can’t be successful in life,” Varano continues, loading more meatball onto my plate. “Especially when it means taking a shot. La fame makes you work. Hunger makes you work. Everybody wakes up hungry. I wake up starving.”
A glass breaks somewhere by the bar, a thing that happens in this business, and Varano beckons his waiter, who’s been patiently standing a few feet away. When he leans in, Varano says loud enough for the three of us to hear: “Whoever broke that, don’t kill ’em. Just tell them to get their résumé ready.” Then he goes right back in….
“I took a chance because I’m me. I believe in me. I’m myself, ’cause everything else comes off. Makeup is a temporary illusion. ’Cause someone’s gonna realize that you’re full of shit in about eight hours, right?”
“That’s when you reapply,” I say.
“Right, but maybe you can’t,” he says, delighted that someone’s set him up. “Maybe you can’t, ’cause you fell asleep, ’cause you had one too many drinks, and you wake up looking like me with a wig, and it’s like, holy shit!”
But seriously, “Be yourself,” he says. “I’m not polished. I went through ninth grade. When I don’t know something, I just don’t talk. I’m just gonna listen ’cause I don’t wanna look like a jerkoff. But today, it’s a lot easier with Siri and Google. Know what I mean? Ask it a question—real quick, like, I gotta run to the restroom—‘What’s the square root of an isosceles triangle,’ then you come back to the table and say, ‘Sorry, what were you saying?’”