Is Boston Ready for Nick Varano?

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Photograph by David Lauridsen

Photograph by David Lauridsen

“Howyadoin’.”

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.

Varano almost always holds the ­winning hand, but when he loses, he signs the bills before handing them over; the author follows suit. (Photography by David Lauridsen)

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.

Photograph by Toan Trinh

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?”

“What?”

“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?’”

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.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2015/02/24/nick-varano/