BOSTON - Strega, it’s synonymous with the North End for all the wrong reasons. It’s the sort of restaurant that has no reservations about marketing itself in terms of exclusivity, excess and pure, unadulterated ego. It’s a place to both see and be seen if your idea of a once in a lifetime experience is succumbing to the most banal and ugly stereotypes of Italian American culture, replete with the requisite strains of the Godfather theme humming incessantly in the background like a treacly plague of locusts.
Yes, you can live out your adolescent fantasies of playing Tony Soprano for one night and even (heavens forfend, Wally!) catch a glimpse at “why-are-they-even-famous” glitterati tucking into plates of fettucini carbonara while blissfully pretending not to notice your open mouth. But you’re still just some putz from East Lansing who managed to snag a reservation at a narcissistic tourist trap.
But you’ve got to hand it to Strega owner Nick Varano. He knows how to market himself. He managed to turn what is essentially nothing more than a mafia-themed franchise you’d be embarrassed to be seen eating at (I have and am) into nine of the most desirable hot spots in the greater Boston area. Make that twelve, if you count his entry into the legalized gambling experience.
Dublin-based Danu Partners, which also recently purchased the Smith & Wollensky chain (another Boston-based tribute to inexplicable crassness), announced recently that both entities will be operated by a newly formed hospitality firm, the Medford-based PPX Hospitality Brands.
“Following the successful acquisition of the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group in 2016, the acquisition of The Strega Group is an attractive opportunity to add highly complementary Boston-based operating businesses to our hospitality portfolio,” said Danu Partners’ Leonard Ryan in a recent press release. “We believe in the long-term potential of this market and look forward to investing in these restaurants and the talented teams that operate them.”
Among the entities sold by Varano include Strega Waterfront, the Park Plaza Hotel’s STRIP by Strega, Woburn’s Strega Prime and the five Caffe Strega locations throughout Boston. Varano will continue to operate the original Strega in the North End, along with two other nearby restaurants, Nico and Rina’s.
“I need a place to hang my hat,” Varano recently told Boston magazine. “Those two [Strega and Nico] had a special place in [my mother’s] heart. She was very proud, and it made me proud to make her proud. I don’t think I would ever sell.”
“The Strega brand was built by my passion and determination to add to Boston’s outstanding culinary scene over the past 17 years and to have this opportunity to pass on the Strega experience to a company like Danu Partners is an incredible opportunity. This will be a new day for The Varano Group and look forward to the continued success of everyone involved.”
Is Strega an experience? It depends on how you’re defining the term. By his own admission, Varano has single-handedly constructed a culinary empire. An immersive empire, where diners pay high prices to bask in a megalomaniacal vision based more on glitz and artifice than on a deep-rooted connection with food. This isn’t to say the food is negligible at Strega. It’s not. But in the end, you’re not paying for food. You’re paying to perpetuate a caricature.
“Through the creation of PPX Hospitality Brands and with Smith & Wollensky’s commitment to genuine hospitality and quality, we will bring additional support systems, growth strategy and a team of resources to drive the Strega brand to new heights,” said Michael Feighery, PPX’s CEO.
Strega. It’s not a restaurant. It’s a brand. That should pretty much tell you all you need to know.
Strega Ristorante is located at 379 Hanover St in Boston and is open daily from 12:00 pm - 11:00 pm. For more information, visit Strega Ristorante.
Image via Yelp/Chris W.