When coronavirus hit and her friends and colleagues in the hospitality industry began losing their jobs, Nicky Bandera wasn't sure how to help. So she did the most Italian thing possible, she says: She started making lasagna for people.
Every day at 5 a.m., she gets up to start making sauce in her Quincy kitchen. Bandera, a contractor for Tequila Tromba, spends the morning preparing lasagna, 20 to 30 trays a day, using her mother’s secret recipe. She and boyfriend Billy Cook pack each one into a bag with a handwritten card and other treats, seal the packages carefully, and set them on the porch. Then a driver picks them up and delivers them to the day’s lucky recipients.
What started as a small-scale effort to feed a few acquaintances quickly grew into Project Paulie, named for the “Goodfellas” character who prepped garlic with a razor blade for red-sauce feasts in prison. Since the first delivery March 26, Bandera and a group of industry helpers have fed more than 500 people. The more lasagna they delivered, the more stories of need they heard: about the waitress who’s a single mom, the person whose house had just burned down, the undocumented workers without access to resources. “I thought I was going to be delivering to 20 friends,” Bandera says. “We didn’t think it would escalate that quickly or to that level.”
Beverage companies Tequila Tromba, Red Bull, and Narragansett Beer provided the initial funding, and donations from the community keep the project going. In addition to a lasagna and a card, each bag includes beer from Narragansett, Red Bulls, a batched cocktail such as a margarita or Paloma, and whatever other little treats might have been donated: some fancy shampoo from a local salon, an album from a DJ’s personal collection. “There’s always an element of fun,” Bandera says.
Palmer Matthews, of the Townshend in Quincy, buys the ingredients and stores them in the restaurant’s walk-in, delivering them to Bandera’s porch as needed. Chris Trott, on-premise sales manager for Red Bull, deals with the spreadsheets and figures out the delivery routes. He also does some of the driving, along with a group of local bartenders and restaurateurs from establishments including Chickadee, Mariel, Pammy’s, the Sinclair, and Yvonne’s. Bandera keeps the circle small for safety; everyone wears masks and gloves, donations sit for 24 hours and are disinfected twice, and pickups are no-contact. Daughter Francis, 3, helps out too: “We are teaching her to be a helper and setting an example about the way we deal with things and think about our community as a whole,” Bandera says.
Justin Dibble, bar manager at Clink in the Liberty Hotel, and Lizzie Havoc, bartender and general manager at the Avenue Bar & Grill, are thinking the same way. The two started a weekly video series, #BartendingInSweatpants, to raise money for people in the service industry. Joining forces with Bandera for an episode, they raised $1,500 for Project Paulie.
They also received a delivery, along with a riot of purple streamers decorating their door. “It’s delicious,” Dibble says of the lasagna. “It’s definitely made with love,” Havoc adds.
Bandera plans to keep Project Paulie running as long as donations support it; over the past few weeks, incoming funds have matched the requests, and the next 150 deliveries are already booked and paid for. Lasagna is the perfect dish for delivery because it can feed someone for several meals. But it’s more than that. It’s comfort food. It takes time to make. “People can see that and be comforted by that and feel cared for,” Bandera says. “This has always been about giving somebody something to be happy about in a time when it’s really hard and maybe you haven’t smiled much that day.”
That was the experience of lasagna recipient Pristine Christine, a Boston-area drag queen who also works as a bartender and an optical stylist. All three jobs vanished. “I was a moody mess, I was upset, it was raining all week, and all of a sudden [Bandera] texted me: ‘Just so you know, your lasagna’s at your door.’ It just lifted my spirits completely,” says Pristine Christine. “It was a beacon of light in this quarantine darkness. It’s the care package I wish everyone could receive.”
Donations to Project Paulie can be sent by Venmo to Nicky-Bandera. To request a delivery, e-mail ProjectPaulieNicky@gmail.com.