Joanne Massaro learned about working under fire a lifetime ago, toiling in the 1970s as a self-taught cook in a Washington restaurant run by Claude Bouchet, a French chef who served presidents and powerbrokers.
Now Massaro faces an entirely differently kind of pressure cooker: The girl who grew up in Hyde Park and dreamed of being a chef is Boston’s commissioner of public works. For the past four winters Massaro has overseen snow removal, a key city service that has come under fire since a blizzard dumped more than 2 feet of snow and some side streets remained impassible for days.
“Our guys did a good job,” Massaro said last week in an interview. “It wasn’t perfect, but what my guys sometimes lack in finesse they make up for in endurance and commitment. They keep coming in, they keep doing it, we keep giving them lists, and they [keep] going out and busting their butts.”
Mayor Thomas M. Menino apologized to residents whose streets were left unplowed, but he and his staff have also defended the city’s response. Boston’s main arteries were cleared hours after the blinding blizzard and the majority of the city’s side streets followed, Menino and others have said.
City Councilor Charles C. Yancey has called for a hearing to examine the response, which will be a test for Massaro.
Massaro came to public works four years ago from the city’s finance office to repair a department in disarray — from loafing employees to an equipment garage overrun by mismanagement and infighting. Menino liked Massaro’s work and in 2010 pushed the City Council to remove the requirement that the commissioner be a civil engineer, enabling her to became the permanent boss.
“Nobody else works harder in my administration than Joanne Massaro,” Menino said in an interview. “You don’t have to drive a plow. You don’t have to be a civil engineer. She’s a great manager.”
‘I’ve always been comfortable in a man’s world.’
A diminutive grandmother with short-cropped white hair, Massaro took an unlikely path to the grease-on-the-coveralls, male-dominated world of public works. At age 58, she has been mother to two girls, holds degrees from two Ivy League institutions, and with her sister and mother founded Sorelle Bakery & Cafe in her home neighborhood of Charlestown.
At the restaurant, Massaro discovered that she excelled more at management than cooking, an epiphany that pushed her to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where in 1995 she received a midcareer master’s degree in public administration. But even after almost 20 years in city government working on neighborhood development and finance, her resume does not scream public works.
“The main problem Joanne faced going into the job was a lot of people with very tough street jobs who didn’t want to buy into the fact that there was a woman managing the department,” said Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, a fiscal watchdog that has been critical of public works.
“She’s got a certain grace to her,” Cahill said. “Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of glamour in public works. I’ve never seen her get angry. She shows up [in the equipment yards] when she needs to. I think there a healthy fear of her in the field, which is not in the worst thing in the world.”
Massaro carries a pad of paper and scribbles notes like a reporter, practices yoga daily, and meditates most mornings for 20 to 40 minutes, a practice she abandoned during the blizzard.
Her status as the city’s first female public works commissioner is something Massaro said she is proud of, “but it’s not something that makes a difference.”
“I’ve always been comfortable,” she said, “in a man’s world.”
With 350 employees and an $82 million budget, the Public Works Department does more than remove snow. It maintains the city’s 40 bridges, its 66,000 street lights, and handles construction on 810 miles of road. Public works employees fill potholes, sweep streets, and oversee trash and recycling pickup. But when most people think of the department, they think snow removal.
“It was the thing that made me the most nervous about the job because part of it is beyond your control,” she said. “It’s the weather.”
With her understated nature, Massaro could not be more different than Boston’s iconic former public works czar, the late Joseph F. Casazza, who for almost four decades was the public face of winter in Boston. Casazza, however, also took his own lumps over plowing, especially when the city faced similar two-foot snowfalls in December 2003 and the April Fool’s Day blizzard of 1997, when he slept through the height of the storm.
The city has 78 plows and salt spreaders and 10 front-end loaders for tearing through snow berms after blizzards. But the majority of plows and other equipment – which numbered some 600 in the blizzard – comes from private firms that bid for three-year contracts.
Much of the on-the-ground operational direction comes from Massaro’s deputy, Elmo Baldassari, a public works veteran whom she described recently as the city’s snow general.
But Massaro is still involved, perhaps in the same way she once managed the bakery. Back then, one of the regulars was the comedian Tony V, who would open the door and announce, “Honey, I’m home.” Massaro made a point of making sure they had Tony V’s family favorite: Breaded chicken cutlets sautéed on a roll with a little sauce but no cheese.
In an interview, the comedian was quick to defended Massaro in her current job.
“We had [two] feet of snow in 24 hours! What is she supposed to do, eat it?” Tony V, whose surname is Viveiros, asked. “I lived in Charlestown and I was able to drive the next day.”Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.