Is Boston Ready for Nick Varano?

His Strega empire serves up larger-than-life Italian fare with casino-infused pomp and glitz. That’s played well with the suburban and sports-star crowds. But now, with the expected April launch of his new glammed-up steakhouse, Strip, Varano is taking his fabulous one-man show straight into the heart of snobtown. Varano thinks he’s ready for Boston.

Varano’s parents came to Boston from Calabria in 1970 when his mother was pregnant with him. They divorced shortly thereafter, and his mother collected food stamps while running a beauty shop in the North End. Sundays were about church and Mike’s Pastry. In the fifth grade, he realized that he could get the same results by skipping church and going straight to confession. After cleansing his moral slate, he says, “I’m out again trying to rob a Snickers bar from the convenience store ’cause my mother wouldn’t give me the money to buy it. But that was then,” he says.

“You wouldn’t swipe a Snickers bar now?” I ask.

“After the surgery, today, yeah, I just might,” he says, unleashing a litany of body parts he’d part with for a slice of pizza. Post-stomach removal, Varano is suffering incarnate. Later in January, when he’s taking a break in Florida, I’ll see him get up halfway through a feast and stand there, clutching his chair, looking miserable and somewhat bewildered. Food used to be his friend. “Actually, I’m craving a Caramello,” he says. “I want one bad.”

Varano spent much of early February on the West Coast—first at the Super Bowl, then at the ­Grammys. (Photo courtesy of Nick Varano)

Varano has worked since he was 12, when he took a job in his uncle’s East Boston corner store. He bought a Corvette with his earnings when he was 16, and that’s what he used to pick up his future wife, Michelle, on their first date.

Now, when his vices overtake his better judgment, Varano skips confession and goes “right to the guy up there,” he says, glancing skyward. “I look up, make the sign of the cross, and I say, ‘God, I’m sorry, I know I’m an asshole. I promise I won’t do it again.’” Pause. “Lies. Like he can’t tell I’m lying,” he says with a wink.

Then he reveals he’s a gin player.

“You play gin?” I ask, making sure I heard right. Now we’ve got something in common.

He pauses and gives me that side-eye again. He’s sizing me up, trying to get a read on me. It’s like he’s seeing me as a person for the first time. Am I a contender? “I’m the best gin player in the country,” he says, testing the waters.

“No,” I say, “I am.”

“Swear on your mother,” he says. Which I don’t do. Because she’s still alive. “I’m the best,” he says. “Under 5-foot-9, over 300 pounds, I’m the best in the country. If they had a weight-class division in gin…I’m the best. In the country.”

“All right, you’re on,” I say, privately assessing my wine intake. I play better when I’m slightly impaired. But it’s a delicate balance.

“Oh ho, that’s my favorite game. Nobody even plays it no more. It’s an old game I used to play with all the old Italian guys and the old Jewish guys. I’d go to the clubs.”

I begin to wonder whether Varano is a cheat. Because playing a cheat is no fun. “No, I don’t cheat,” he says. “But you could never win. Rachel, you think you could really beat me? I feel bad because you got false hope. It’s the worst thing to happen in life. Nothing worse than false hope in life. I’m dying to play you.” He’s positively sparkling.

“How’s this,” he says, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll spot you 75 points to 100, right? Hold on. And we’re gonna play five games minimum, and we’ll play for $1, but if I win you gotta give me 5 to 1 on the money. So you’ve got a 75-point lead, all right? But you gotta give me 5 to 1 on the money.”

“So ultimately, if I lose, do I have to sell my apartment?” I ask. Because while I can play gin, I like where I live.

“No. It’s $25. Off the record, I love gin,” he says.

“That’s off the record?”

“No I’m just saying, it’s not even for the story. I love playing gin. I used to play with all the old Jewish guys ’cause they loved it. I could sit there for hours with them.

“Oh, no question I’ll kick your ass,” he says. “I’ll get in your head like Ike was with Tina.” He laughs, but he’s on fire. “I feel sad. It’s so hard. Because you got expectations and you can’t live up to them in life, I don’t want you to have that.” And he showers me with pity. So then I start feeling bad for myself.

 

We get up from the table to head for the Celtics game, and Varano leaves two hundred-dollar bills on the table. In his massive white Escalade, I ask him what he’d have done if he hadn’t opened restaurants. His answer: “I’d be a pro basketball player. I’d be the first Italian basketball player in the NBA under 5-foot-10, over 250. I’d have my own sneaker line: Envy. Capital E, capital N, capital V, small y. My own sneaker line with a symbol of me, but it wouldn’t be like the Jordan thing, it’d be more like a chunky restaurateur guy with a fork and a knife, with a basketball on the fork.”

We settle into our seats, order popcorn, glad-hand a few well-wishers. Everyone knows Nicky. He texts Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck to say hi (Wyc’s in Jamaica with his son). There are Celtics and Pelicans dribbling balls up and down the court just a few feet in front of us. Then Varano wants to bet on the game, to make it interesting. We agree on $1—I went with the Celtics because I don’t know shit.

The popcorn comes, and I ask Varano about what Strip is going to be like, but he’s not feeling dishy: “It’s gonna have the same thing,” he says distractedly. “Everyone feels special, but it’s gonna be a modern Italian steakhouse.”

“What makes it modern?” I ask, setting him up.

He brightens to a fresh routine: “The cows are much younger,” he riffs, “and they all wear Brioni and drink latte instead of milk. So when you squeeze their thing, Lavazza comes out. You gotta go to the mountains of Abruzzi, Italy, to find these cows. These are special cows. You know how you have grass-fed? These are Nutella-fed cows.”

Occasionally Varano watches the game. More often than not, he’s looking at his phone. But then his thoughts wander to gin.

“We should get a deck of cards. And I’m not even gonna let you win just because you’re bad. No, never happens. Oh, I know, I’m a real fine guy. I’ll hold the door for you, let you walk in first—but in gin, you got no shot.”

It’s a one- or two-point spread the whole game. The Celtics win at the last second, which means I win, and right there, Varano pulls out a fresh bill, writes “LUCKY FUCK,” and signs it: Nick Varano.

Back in his office above Strega Waterfront, Varano and I play gin late into the night. He orders up a tray of desserts—cheesecake, key lime pie, mini cannolis—plus still water and a bottle of something red for me. “Don’t make it nice, this one drinks Manischewitz,” he says to his waiter.

I keep looking for hidden cameras and notice that I’m sitting next to a glass door, so I maneuver a conference chair between me and the reflection. “I don’t cheat, but I like that you did that,” he says admiringly. He’s good, don’t get me wrong. He’s really good. But I still kill it dead. Or maybe he wipes the floor with me. It depends on who you ask. Somehow I get out of there with only a $10 loss. So the next day I send him a ten, on which I write, “DON’T GET STUCK WITH A PAIR OF QUEENS.” Now that we’ve played cards together, I feel that we are like kin. But did he cheat? Worse, did he throw his hand? These are the things that nag me.

 

The following Friday, I’m on a plane heading for West Palm Beach for another dose of Varano’s world. He’s been gone all week—down to Miami, then golfing in the Dominican Republic, and now he says he’s giving some kind of talk at a conference. It’s all very vague—I don’t know who or why or what. I stay at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, where the “conference” is being held. Turns out the host is Gary Joyal, an assets manager with a boilerplate website and offices in Plymouth and Boca Raton. The Globe ran a story about Joyal back in September 2014, and mentioned his Rolls-Royce, his chiseled face, and how he’s the broker in the billion-dollar world of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises—dividing up new Dunkies territory, including California and Florida, among high-wealth players like some kind of Coolatta god.

Varano meets up with me for lunch wearing a bright white linen shirt unbuttoned low enough to reveal a heavy chain—supporting one massive gold pendant embossed with his initials, NV—nestled in a thick bed of gray chest fluff. (Later, I’ll get a good dose of the rest of that fluff when he yanks off his pullover to reveal his fuzzy, decades-old, 8-inch-tall Celtic cross tattoo.) Though I’ve trekked down here for Varano’s talk, I never get to hear it. I walk into the room where Joyal’s executive team is sitting around a big table with a projector, but Joyal suddenly doesn’t want me there, so Varano respectfully escorts me right back out.

So I spend the afternoon researching the friends Varano suggested I call for comment, a list that includes ESPN’s Steve Levy, Boston and Las Vegas strip-club mogul Nando Sostilio, and Mark Wahlberg. But a couple of the guys on the list raise eyebrows. Take Angelo Buonopane. As the director of the Department of Labor, he was the subject of a Globe investigation in 2005 that found he was barely working while collecting his $108,000 salary. When asked about Buonopane’s troubles, Varano says in his defense, “He’s an old friend and a good guy.”

Another person on the list is Andy Bachman—the same Andy Bachman who reached a $97 million settlement with the FTC last summer for running a racket that bilked cell-phone customers out of tens of millions of dollars. His company sent unsolicited texts to people’s cell phones and then typically charged them $9.99 per month. As part of the settlement, Bachman agreed to surrender more than $1.2 million in assets, including a 2012 Ferrari 458 Italia and four Rolexes.

At the bar, I ask Varano whether he knew about Bachman’s legal troubles, and he says, well, sort of. His son had read the article to him, but he didn’t quite understand. I explain what I’d read in the FTC report, but that’s not Varano’s world. “I go by how you treat people, what you write. Because who knows what’s real or not real? Everyone’s got skeletons in their closets, some bigger than others,” he says. I further explain the particulars, and Varano is torn—all that money is impressive. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” he says, laughing. But then again, “Don’t call him,” he says. “Look,” he continues, “I only know what’s in front of me. I’m gonna believe what I know. I know you, I trust you, and I don’t care what anyone else says.”

It’s unclear whether Nick ever gave a speech in Boca. And I’ll never know how he spent the following Saturday, because I can’t get a straight answer. That night, however, we meet up with Joyal’s team at a popular Italian joint where the wine flows freely and the plates keep coming. As the crowd gets rowdier, Varano, out of the spotlight, sits quietly sipping his water, gazing wistfully at the food.