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‘A great summer,’ but now what? North End restaurants pack up patios as uncertain future looms

Resident concerns about traffic and crowding prompted outdoor dining to end a month early in Italian restaurant mecca

Jim and Harriet Stoddard of Franklin, Kate Wormington of San Carlos, Calif., and Sarah, Caitlin, and Eric Sorensen of San Carlos, Calif., dined on a patio at Forcella in the North End on Friday, Oct. 22.Laurie Swope for The Boston Globe/Laurie Swope

As the last diners of the season cleared the North End’s temporary patios Sunday night — a month before restaurants in the rest of the city will have to pack up makeshift outdoor dining setups — restaurateur Frank DePasquale said he sipped a glass of champagne, celebrating the end of a difficult but busy season.

And by early Monday afternoon, all the patio setups were disassembled and hauled away.

“Honestly it was a great summer, people really enjoyed the outside seating. The customers said it looked like a European neighborhood,” DePasquale said. “All the staff was very, very happy. They made the greatest amount of money they ever made.”

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The option to seat diners outside was “a great privilege to have this year,” said DePasquale, owner of six restaurants including Bricco, Aqua Pazza, Quattro, and Trattoria Il Panino. He had invested about $100,000 in barriers, tables, chairs, and heaters for his restaurants. “We came close to making it up and maybe making a few dollars on top,” he said.

Restaurants in the North End, at their best, are places for celebrations, DePasquale said. And through 2020 and early 2021, the pandemic deprived the neighborhood of celebrations: There were no in-person feasts, no games and concerts at nearby TD Garden. Weddings, conferences, and birthday parties were few. Tourists vanished. Business suffered.

But since spring, the neighborhood has had a resurgence. Its streets were crowded and restaurants, finally, busy. Tourists, many of them from relatively close to Boston, lined up for cannoli and oysters and glasses of wine. Feasts were back, and so were some games and concerts and the business they bring to the neighborhood. Italy’s national soccer team won the Euro 2020 tournament, DePasquale noted — another moment to celebrate in the Italian American enclave.

“With the pandemic going on, to be able to sit outside and talk to people walking by — it was a great time to rejoice,” DePasquale said.

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Whether that opportunity will return next year remains up in the air.

Heather Malkov of Somerville fed 8-month-old Cole Malkov as his 2-year-old brother Charlie Malkov ate nearby on the patio at the Forcella restaurant in the North End.Laurie Swope for The Boston Globe/Laurie Swope

When the city expanded permits for outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, North End restaurants embraced it, adding tables in parking spaces and even church courtyards. And diners poured in.

Some residents, though, felt differently, saying the neighborhood’s narrow streets are too small, too cramped, too busy to accommodate the extra seating.

And the debate raised old questions of what the North End should be. A tourist destination that draws out-of-towners and brings heaps of money to Boston? Or a residential neighborhood in which the needs of locals — parking spots, access to sidewalks, and so on — should be prioritized?

At a Zoom meeting Thursday night, residents complained of traffic and impassably crowded sidewalks. A representative for the Boston Fire Department, Deputy Fire Chief Bart Shea, said the department was strongly opposed to the outdoor dining program continuing next year because navigating the neighborhood in a fire truck was already slow and difficult.

“Whether it goes forward or not, that’s out of my hands,” Shea said. “But we do not want it.”

Resident Darlene Romano said she was also worried about emergency vehicles being able to reach people who need them quickly and that the needs of restaurants had overwhelmed the concerns of residents.

“My feeling is the restaurants made plenty of money before COVID with just indoor seating, and they will continue with the amount of tourists that we have coming into this North End every single day — every day, 365 days a year,” Romano said. “There’s no way that they actually have to make up money anymore from outside seating. I’m sorry. That’s how I feel. It’s getting very aggravating.”

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Still, Nino Trotta, owner of restaurants Libertine and Forcella, said his business was not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, even with the extra outdoor seating. He estimated revenue was 70 or 75 percent of what it was in 2019 and that indoor dining remained a step too far for some and that larger parties are only slowly coming back.

“Definitely the outdoor dining is helping unbelievably, and also this influx of tourists,” Trotta said.

But as he looked ahead to November, when restaurants in every other part of Boston could keep their makeshift outdoor spaces for another month, Trotta said he worried the North End’s early end to the outdoor dining season would draw people to different neighborhoods.

“I can understand why [some neighbors] are against it, but I don’t think it’s fair that one neighborhood is being treated different than other neighborhoods,” Trotta said. “In November, when we have 60-degree weather, or 70-degree weather, and [people] want to sit outside, they cannot come to the North End.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.