As restaurants began reopening in Massachusetts in early June, the North End quickly hummed back to life.
The city’s densest destination for restaurants — there are over 100 in just a few square blocks — seemed up for the challenges of the COVID-19 era. For the first time, patio tables sprawled into the street, and both the tourists and news cameras arrived to celebrate the neighborhood’s nouveau European appeal.
On a recent Sunday, everyone seemed to be making the most of a sunny afternoon: A tour guide pulled down her mask, momentarily, to offer a history lesson. Parents with freshly purchased university T-shirts, creases still visible, wandered side streets with their college students. At Strega, the throbbing bass of the house music blared, while servers in branded masks carried plates of Mamma’s famous meatballs to guests on the street.
Those working in the restaurants may put on a good face, but many servers and owners are grimacing behind their masks. Because there were no feasts this year. No games at TD Garden. The tourists were fewer, the corporate expense accounts nonexistent.
The troubles of the city’s most celebrated restaurant neighborhood are representative of what eateries throughout the region have experienced. And while the North End has the advantage of being a dining destination, that has its own drawbacks: Its intimate spaces may become too close for socially distant comfort as the chill sets in. Many eateries have struggled to make their takeout menus stand out in a sea of Italian fare. And as restaurant closures mount throughout the city, everyone wonders just how many will be able to weather the winter.
If restaurants in the North End aren’t able to survive, then who can?
And so, fears are mounting. After a summer unlike any other, life in the North End remains uncertain.
“The breeze is changing — it has the feeling like fall is starting to come,” Jorge Perez, a server at Artu, said as he placed a plate of pasta on a Prince Street patio table.
Perez lives in Chelsea, one spot where the pandemic has taken its hardest toll, but he said things have been relatively steady at the restaurant — or as steady as they can be right now. Still, he worries.
“A lot of people don’t like to sit indoors, it’s understandable,” Perez said. And as he thinks about the cooler months ahead, he said, “It’s scary. That’s the big question mark. Will people still go out to dinner?”
Many restaurant owners said that after the excitement of the reopening died down, so did the visits.
“I can tell you the first two or three weeks that they did allow us to reopen, every day was a Saturday night or New Year’s Eve,” said Nino Trotta, owner of Forcella and Libertine, the latter of which had just opened weeks before the pandemic shut it down. “People were like, ’We’re going to be rich!’ but I told my staff, ’Everybody is getting excited and it’s a great motivational scenario, but I don’t think it’s going to last.’ ”
It didn’t. In June, he was seeing 80 or 90 guests on a random Tuesday evening. Now he’s lucky if he gets 15 on a night in the middle of the week. And that’s hard, because he can see exactly what restaurants up and down the block are doing when it comes to social distancing — or not doing, as the case may be. He said it’s tough knowing he’s been following safety guidelines while others nearby are flouting them.
“I don’t know,” Trotta said. “You don’t have to go to MIT to figure out that 6 feet apart means 6 feet apart.”
He said his expected sales for the year are down 60 percent at Forcella, and nearly 80 percent at Libertine, which hadn’t had the time to develop regulars. And those numbers seem to be in line with restaurants up and down the North End’s streets.
“We definitely hit our peak the first week and that was it. It’s been the same, it hasn’t grown at all. We’re probably down 60 percent in total,” said Anthony Caturano, the owner of Prezza on Fleet Street. “I mean, each day you wake up and you kind of get ready to get your head kicked in.”
And Carla Agrippino Gomes, who owns Terramia, Antico Forno, and Cobblestone Cafe, said she saw her numbers dip when Governor Charlie Baker put travel restrictions in place on Aug. 1. “It broke everyone’s balloon," she said. "I think a lot of people who were going to come to Boston decided not to.”
Yet state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, who represents the North End and has lived there his entire life, said the neighborhood is faring better than most. Dine Out Boston promotions drew in some visitors, he said, and “the outdoor seating within the outdoor season has certainly been a tremendous help to keep them alive — not thriving, but alive." On Tuesday, Boston extended its outdoor dining program from Oct. 31 to Dec. 1.
And about half of the restaurateurs in the neighborhood own the buildings they occupy, he added, a far higher percentage than anywhere else in the city, Michlewitz said. “The renters are the ones we’ve very concerned about.”
Philip Frattaroli is one of the lucky ones. He owns the buildings that house his three restaurants, Lucia, Ducali, and Filippo, and he’s been able to keep them open. Some of his neighbors have gotten breaks on their rent, he said, but those payments will one day come due, because “a lot [of buildings] are owned by individual families who can’t afford to forgive rents like a big commercial landlord might be able to.”
And with a lot of transient young people vacating their apartments in the floors above, that calculus becomes that much harder, he added.
Frattaroli compared the wave of closures across the city to “The Hunger Games,” the dystopian story where individuals battle to the death. “At the end of the day that’s exactly what our lives are like,” he said. “It’s people looking down the road and saying, maybe it’s just not worth it to be in this business anymore.”
That was ultimately the decision made by Jose Duarte, who shut down Taranta at the end of August after two decades on Hanover Street. He said that even after getting Paycheck Protection Program funds, he still didn’t have enough to cover his rent.
“The only way I could have stayed in business is if I owned the building and was hands-on working with my wife in the front and me in the back, and maybe a couple of my kids serving tables,” he said. “I didn’t have enough economic support to stay open. We waited for a second round of PPP — that could have helped — and the Restaurants Act is still caught in Congress. But every month that passes is a month that I will owe and the debts will keep piling on.”
Agrippino Gomes has the same landlord as Duarte at one of her restaurants, and fears she is facing a similar fate. “I’m basically keeping my restaurant open to give my employees a job,” she said. “I keep pouring more and more money of my own into it and pretty soon that’s going to have to stop.”
And so she’s begun a new ritual. Since the pandemic started, she’s been heading to Mass each morning near her home in Dedham in the hopes of seeking salvation.
“I go every day,” she said. “And I pray.”