Metro, Food

At Strega And Nico, Varano Family Creates Authentic North End Experience

Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), and other members of The Sopranos cast walked the streets of Boston’s North End on May 29, 2003, gathering around a brick building on a crowded Hanover St.

Nick Varano, the son of Italian immigrants, had just taken a leap of faith. After operating a small used-car dealership, he decided to buy an Italian restaurant in the North End. Strega, his first restaurant, was a 50-person establishment in the heart of the historic Italian neighborhood. Entering a difficult business in an increasingly uncertain market, no one knew quite what to expect. But after Nick successfully managed to contact cast members from the most exciting hit show of the early millennium and bring them to his opening, it became clear that Strega was going to be something big. The next day, The Boston Herald ran a front-page story about the star-studded grand opening, and an essential North End Restaurant was born.

Five years after the opening of Strega, Varano opened another restaurant, “Nico,” named after his son (CSOM ’16). Originally conceived as a disco-themed restaurant where a customer could step in, grab some food, and hang around for a while, Nico faced slow-moving tables. Customers would order one item and remain at their tables all night, leading to low turnover and a need for change. In response, Nico was reinvented as an intimate, high-end restaurant open for private parties. With a new focus on romantic as well as friendly dining, Nico grew to reach the same exceptional levels of success that have come to be expected from Nick Varano’s restaurants.

Running a restaurant is a daunting business, especially with little prior experience. But Varano was confident in his methods. He entered into the business with the idea that in order to run a successful restaurant, you have to provide excellent service and hospitality to each client.

“You treat people a certain way,” he said. “You treat people the way you want to be treated. Then you’ll be successful … You treat everybody like they’re really coming into your own home.”

This method certainly proved to be successful, with Strega, and in turn Nico, growing to be prominent high-end restaurants in Boston. Varano attributes much of this growth to a “Snowball Effect,” as he calls it: excellent customer service leading to increased interest; satisfied, returning diners; and a devoted customer base. In the years since the opening of Strega, Nick Varano has opened five more restaurants under the title “The Varano Group,” including a pizzeria and cafe.
Nico and Strega, both just a block apart on Hanover St., are in the heart of the constantly-bustling North End.

“The best inner-city neighborhood, I think, in the country,” Varano said. In this dynamic, iconic neighborhood it can prove difficult for a restaurant to distinguish itself, but Varano has managed to do this by applying his customer-first policy and providing high-quality food.

The two restaurants offer different atmospheres for a night out. Strega is more lively and lined with TV’s broadcasting classic Italian films and shows such as The Sopranos, or sports on game nights. Nico is quieter and more relaxing, with an understated but vibrant decor, a place to take a date or bring some friends for some dinner and conversation. Both restaurants exude a welcoming warmth, an Italian love and hospitality.

Both Nico and Strega have similar, classic Italian specialties. The most popular appetizer is a large meatball, covered in sauce and sprinkled with cheese. They also offer, scallops, salads, Italian dishes of many kinds, and of course a variety of delicious pastas in large portions. Each dish is perfectly presented and has obviously been cared for to become a luxurious, savory meal.

After your meal, Nico and Strega both offer decadent desserts, including tiramisu, pumpkin cheesecake, and a deservedly-praised chocolate mousse. Whether you normally order dessert or not, you should definitely sample something from this menu—it will be one of the best desserts you’ve ever had.

Alongside the food, these restaurants provide excellent service. Varano explained that one of the ways to stand out in a neighborhood saturated with high-quality restaurants is to provide excellent service and create the ideal atmosphere. Both Nico and Strega succeed in this mission, truly making the customer feel like the center of attention for their time there. The wait staff is knowledgeable and friendly and makes the customer feel very important.

Due to the delicious food and welcoming, dutiful staff, both restaurants have also frequently been home to various celebrities, including athletes and movie stars such as Robert de Niro, that have garnered the restaurant even more attention.

One of the draws of these popular restaurants is the knowledge that you never know who you might see when you stop by for dinner. Past guests have included David Ortiz and Kevin Miller, both Red Sox stars who dined at these restaurants frequently, increasing the buzz that surrounds them.

Nico, Nick’s son, who has worked at the Varano Group restaurants in various roles including bus boy and valet, attributes both restaurants’ ongoing success to his father’s dynamic personality.

“My dad really built the restaurant based off his own personality,” Nico Varano said. “If he didn’t care so much about the business there’s multiple points where the business could have gone off the tracks, but thanks to his guidance and how he’s led his staff, I think it really worked out well.”

Nico considered how much his father cares about the customer and ensuring that every diner has a good time to be the “secret ingredient for the restaurant’s success.”

Varano, on the other hand, deflected the credit onto those around him, saying, “I give all the credit, honestly all the credit, to my amazing, amazing staff.”

Despite his modesty, it is clear that Varano has achieved great things in the restaurant business, making his first leap of faith a resounding success.

Twelve years have passed since the opening of Strega, and the business continues to expand without losing its customer-focused hospitality.

In a neighborhood that creates an experience like no other, Nick Varano has managed to bring a new experience to dining, and has proven how far one can go with an understanding of how people should be treated.

“Be entertaining,” he said. “Give them an experience when they come to get dinner … that means making everyone feel special.”

Featured Images by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

November 5, 2015