Longtime North End restaurateur Filippo Frattaroli, 65, was recently named Abruzzo Ambassador to the World by the Regional Council of Abruzzo, lauding his cooking at restaurants such as Filippo and Lucia, with locations in Boston and Winchester, as a reference point for the high gastronomy of Abruzzo in the United States. He opened the North End’s Lucia back in 1977 when he was 23 — and he has plenty to say about Boston’s current dining scene.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? The European Restaurant on Hanover St. It was a landmark for so many years in the North End.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? The constant revolving door of restaurants. All of a sudden in the restaurant industry, new is considered better than established. Food writers focus on restaurants that haven’t even opened yet instead of writing about restaurateurs that have stood the test of time. How is it that someone had the opinion, at some point, that it was more exciting to open a restaurant than become a legend in the restaurant industry? It probably has something to do with the throwaway society that we’re living in. Regardless, within the industry, those of us who have been in business awhile can spot when a concept is not going to be around long from a mile away.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? There are more investor-based restaurants and not so many family-owned and -operated restaurants. Investor-based restaurants don’t generally stay in it for the long run; it’s all about the bottom line, and if the restaurant doesn’t meet their projected target numbers, they often close shop, change concepts, and change names — or they just move on.
What other restaurants do you visit? Every few months, I travel to the Abruzzo region, where [I] have a bed & breakfast called B&B Sei Stelle. I have so many favorites there. Food is amazing in Abruzzo, and among my favorite restaurants are Pizzeria Ristorante il Vecchio Muro in Sulmona for pizza, arrosticini, and antipasti. Taverna dei Caldora in a small mountain village called Pacentro for pasta, anything with truffles. An Abruzzese restaurant called Reale recently won three Michelin stars and was named the best restaurant in Italy. The chef, Niko Romito, is phenomenal. In Boston, I love visiting Scampo. Lydia Shire was one of my first customers at Lucia’s in the 1970s when she was chef at the Bostonian Hotel. She has been a great friend and customer ever since.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants?” Food was always a central part of my life. My father had a 500-year-old flour mill in Sulmona when I was growing up. I learned the fine details of how to make pasta and bread literally from the planting and harvesting up to the final product. When I arrived in Boston in 1970, I saw that the Italian restaurants here at the time were many generations removed from Italy, and the food they served showed it. I knew I wanted to open an authentic Italian restaurant, and I knew that I wanted to share the unique dishes of Abruzzo. That’s what I did in 1977 when I opened Ristorante Lucia.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I never like to badmouth a restaurant, because it’s very hard to be in this line of work. Looking back, though, my worst experience in a restaurant happened in my own place. It occurred in the fall of 1996 at Ristorante Lucia in Winchester. It was a Saturday night, and the restaurant and bar were very busy with a line out the door. The kitchen was in full swing, and we had musicians playing in the dining room. It had been raining heavily nonstop for a few days, and the forecast called for more rain for the upcoming week. During dinner service, local officials came in to tell us that the Aberjona River was about to crest and flood the downtown. I remember stepping outside and seeing that, in fact, water had risen to the level of the sidewalk. We made the announcement, but clients wanted to finish up their dinner so the rest of the time was spent quickly wrapping food to go and ushering a full house of customers out. My thoughts were that it was looking a lot like Venice in downtown Winchester, but one of our customers made me laugh when he said, “It was like being on the Titanic. The water level was rising around us, but the band calmly played on!” Our basement flooded, and it was the beginning of a tough few weeks, but it was a night I will never forget.
How could Boston become a better food city? Boston needs a large culinary school to draw talent from, both in the front of the house and in the back of the house. It seems like there’s a lot of interest from young people in the restaurant industry, but I don’t think we have enough formal educational programs for them. Home economics classes don’t exist much anymore, and I think only one Boston high school offers culinary arts. It seems to me that there isn’t enough culinary training in our schools. I probably shouldn’t say this, because all my children went to Boston College, but I like what I have heard about the Boston University programs in wine and food. Boston needs what New York and San Francisco have in the CIA, and what Providence has in Johnson & Wales.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Knowledgeable, discerning, and loyal.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I think trends are overdone. Cupcakes; now it’s doughnuts. Beer halls; now it’s food halls. I think it should be about the food first.
What are you reading? We just purchased a farm in Abruzzo that we are calling Masseria Frattaroli, where we’re growing and harvesting olives and black truffles, so we are all knee-deep in truffle research. Right now I’m reading “Taming the Truffle,” by Gordon Brown, Ian Hall, and Alessandra Zambonelli.
How’s your commute? I live in Winchester, and so the commute downtown to Ristorante Lucia in Winchester is four minutes. I start my day and finish my day there. Going to the original Ristorante Lucia in Boston and to Filippo Ristorante, both in the North End, is another story. I have to plan my day around traffic. What should take me 15 minutes on Route 93 can sometimes take more than an hour. Going back and forth is not quite as easy as it used to be.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Chilled corn chowder. We were dinner guests at a neighbor’s house years ago, and I still remember how much I didn’t like it. Thank goodness, their dog did.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I think we have lost a lot of restaurants on the high end of the scale. I’d like to see Boston have a restaurant that wins a Michelin star, and I want to see the city support it!
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Anthony’s Pier 4, for sentimental reasons mainly. It was where I brought my wife for our first date and where we returned for many anniversary dinners.
Who was your most memorable customer? Former Governor Paul Cellucci. He was a giant of a man and a great friend. When he was lieutenant governor and governor, he came in to eat lunch at Filippo two or three times a week. He was genuine, smart, honest, and insightful. When he passed in 2013 from complications of ALS, I was honored that he chose my son and myself to stand as two of the honor guards at his services at the State House.
Drew Bledsoe was also a great customer of ours at Filippo when he played for the Patriots. I will never forget the night when he was down the street at Mass General following the famous Mo Lewis hit that knocked him out of the game against the Jets. So we put the order together, and the person that came to pick it up was Tom Brady, who was then his backup!
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Breakfast is the meal that America does better than Italy, and I love breakfast. It would be at brunch at Cunard Tavern in East Boston. The entire project [was built] from the ground up; the building and restaurant was the creation of my oldest son, Philip. The location is a former woodworking shop belonging to my wife’s father. History means a lot to my son, honoring both sides of the family. For instance, he turned my father-in-law’s table saw into the host stand and used the original table bases from the original Lucia’s for the tables. So for my wife and myself, enjoying a delicious meal at Cunard holds a lot of meaning. Top it off with a delicious, fresh country-style breakfast; what could be better? What makes the food even more delicious is that everything around me is the result of my son’s hard work, business experience, and talent. Nothing tastes quite as good as raising the next generation to do better than you’ve done.