Despite COVID-19, new restaurants are opening. Lydia Reichert, 38, launches Jinny’s in Newton next week; plans had been in the works since before the pandemic. It’s the latest from the team behind Buttonwood, Little Big Diner, and Sycamore — three restaurants that have helped to define Newton’s neighborhood dining scene in recent years. Jinny’s is named for Reichert’s grandmother; it specializes in wood-fired pizza.
Reichert grew up in Oregon and went to a local culinary school right out of high school, supporting herself with dishwashing jobs. After school, she moved to Boston, working for Tony Maws. Next, she relocated to San Francisco, cooking at Michelin-starred restaurant Quince. She returned to Boston in 2012 and opened Sycamore with restaurateur Dave Punch.
“What makes Boston unique? The community is just a little bit tighter-knit. San Francisco is very transient. You see people come and go a lot,” she says.
The big question right now is: Why open a restaurant during a pandemic? What was the rationale, and how are you pulling it off?
We signed the lease two weeks before the governor declared the shutdown. So I think we were all in a little bit of a different state of mind then. We were like, ‘It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be over in two months. We’ll shut the restaurant for a little bit, and then we’re just going to go back to normal life.’
We were all in this fairy-tale land. The landlord gave us the opportunity to back out. He’s been very good to us and very understanding and working with us through this whole thing.
We made the call in late May, maybe, to just continue on — again, maybe not having the full set of facts in front of us. And then we just were just like, ‘It’s a pizza restaurant. This will be over at some point. It’s a great spot; it’s where we want to be in Newton. Let’s go for it.” We’d been talking about this for way too long. We’d looked at a couple of different spaces over the course of probably three years, and then this just finally happened.
When will you open?
So we passed all of our inspections. I got to light the fire in the pizza oven, which as of earlier this week, it was just this really heavy paperweight.
It takes about a week to temper it and get it up to the temps we want to have it, so we don’t crack the floor. So I’m doing that every day this week, and then hopefully the week of March 1, later in the week, we’ll be able to open the doors if nothing crazy happens.
We’re going to open with a few seats indoors — it’s kind of a joke, it’s seven seats that we can have inside. But we want to do it, and whatever, we’ll work out the glitches. And then we’ll do takeout and eventually delivery, once we get our feet under us.
So my grandmother is Jinny. And she’s not Italian, I don’t think. We never really talked about it. I don’t know where she’s from. But she was just an incredible host, and there were always people in the house just coming and going, neighbors, people whom she probably just met a week ago and was like, ‘Come over for dinner! We’re having a big party!’
Whether you were 7 years old or 90 years old, everybody was welcome to talk about anything. It’s just that atmosphere that we want to take from a little bit, and we all need that.
As far as what we’re serving, it’s going to be a pizza restaurant. We’ll have salads, we’ll have some small plates, and stuff like that, but this is just a little pizzeria.
For the pizza connoisseurs: what style?
We’re calling it American. It’s in the style of Neapolitan, but we’re going to use King Arthur flour and some local ingredients as opposed to using all Italian stuff. Just because I think that it’s silly to have great mozzarella right around the corner and ship it all the way from Italy instead.
We’re going to use local stuff, so it can’t be Neapolitan, in that sense. And just a nice, thin crust and then a pillowy crown that almost has that bread quality to it — it gives you a little chewy bite.
How do you create a grandmotherly vibe — a friendly, warm, welcoming vibe — during COVID, but really even afterward? What goes into creating an atmosphere like that?
I don’t know. I think that we’ve managed it at Sycamore for a while, and we talked about it so much: ‘Why? What happens? And what is it that does that?’ And I think so much of it is the people. The people who are working, the friendliness of everybody and the welcoming-ness of everybody, and that willingness to put yourself out there. But I don’t know if it’s something that you can always pinpoint. I wish I could pinpoint what made my grandmother so welcoming to everybody. But I don’t know, it’s hard to recreate.
I’ll be there solely. I won’t be at Sycamore anymore. And then Dave will be around, floating around like he always does between the four restaurants. And they’re all just a hop, skip, and a jump away. And then we’ve grabbed some of the servers from Sycamore who got laid off or furloughed. We have them, and they know the community, and they know all the people. And my boyfriend, Paul [Manzelli], who was the bar manager at Bergamot for a while, will be doing the beverage program for us and making our cutesy cocktails. So we’re bottling them all, but we do have a full liquor license. So he’s bottling Negronis and a play on a gimlet with a little rosemary in it.
Your restaurants are place-makers in Newton. Through COVID-19 and its aftermath, what role do you think restaurants play in a community?
I don’t know. I hope that we’re all able to come back full steam ahead and that people are wanting to go out more because they haven’t been able to. I think we do worry for sure. I’ve seen my bank account a little bit fuller because I’m not eating out all the time. And food in a box is never as good as food on the plate.
Hopefully that comes back and everybody’s just like, ‘Oh yes, this is what I’ve been missing.’ Pasta in a box is a big clump.
We’re all doing the best we can, and we’re changing our menus to reflect what works and what travels and all that kind of stuff. But I don’t know. It’s not the same. So hopefully it comes back; hopefully everybody’s wanting to go out like we saw during the summer. The summer, being as weird as it was, the outdoor dining that everybody got was great. It was a great experience. I hope they let us do it again. I hope they let us put tables out all the time now.
How has COVID-19 affected your other restaurants?
So I only really know truly about Sycamore. I know about what we talk about with Buttonwood and Little Big Diner, but I was never fully involved in those. But Little Big Diner hasn’t missed a beat as far as I can tell. They’re only open for dinner, but you make some adjustments and they’re cruising, they’re busy, they’re having to turn off their system because they can’t handle anymore.
It’s hard to talk about, and it’s hard to open up a restaurant at this time, too, and be like, ‘Yeah, I know everybody’s hurting right now’ and potentially draw customers away from others. It’s a hard thing to do.
Sycamore is plugging away. We cut down to five days, which helps with labor costs and stuff like that. And it’s the game of a side hustle right now. What else can you throw at people? They’re doing subscriptions, where you sign up for a month of meals on Tuesdays and pick them up. Which has been great, especially because of the weather. If you prepaid for something, you’re still going to go pick it up.
Whereas if there’s a snowstorm, you’re going to stay home, you’re not going out. So it’s been a lot of side hustles. I looked up, on my last day at Sycamore, how many pot pies we sold during COVID — and it was 500 or 550 pot pies.
That’s a lot of pot pies.
It was a lot of pot pies. The pandemic pie. But, yeah, it’s a side hustle. What can you add to your repertoire to get people to buy from you one more time?
How would you describe your customers?
I know them more than I ever knew them in any other city. In San Francisco, I could see who was in the dining room and who was around, but we never interacted with them. We were definitely shut away in the kitchen: ‘Don’t look at these people.’
I think it was probably the setup of the kitchen and partly a different time. I think that the celebrity chef thing, the open kitchen, all that stuff was just getting rolling. We had a kitchen table, but I don’t know. And it was San Francisco. San Francisco is great, I love San Francisco, but to live there, you have to have some other sort of income, some sort of magic. I got a gem of an apartment that was cheap.
What’s your favorite pizza on the menu?
My go-to is always a pepperoni. But we’re doing Alpine pizza with speck, which I think is going to be delicious. And then we’re also doing a salty one, with capers and anchovies and all that kind of stuff. I’m pretty excited to throw that in the wood oven on Monday and see how it truly comes out.