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No sour grapes for Il Capriccio and Michela’s sommelier Jan Novak, who was there when it all began

Young Todd English had a way with meat; Barbara Lynch was talented but green; Christopher Myers was a coat-checker. She poured the wine for all of them.

Il Capriccio sommelier Jan Novak raising a glass in Italy.Courtesy

Il Capriccio, the Italian crown jewel of Waltham, could have been a pandemic casualty. Longtime owner Rich Barron turned the business over to Mike Chapman (Glenville Stops), who moved from Main Street to the Merc building near Moody Street in May 2021. Loyal customers followed. Happily, 27-year sommelier and server Jan Novak, 63, is one of many staffers who stayed on — and the Natick resident, who took a detour from grad school to work in restaurants in the early ‘80s, wouldn’t have it any other way.

How has the business changed since the early years of Il Capriccio?

I think especially in the last five years, the Millennial generation, which is driving the fine-dining restaurants because they’re old enough now that they can afford to spend some money, is driving a much more cocktail-driven business. They love wine, but they’re satisfied with interesting wines by the glass, and they don’t seem to want to do the work to navigate a wine list.

Why do you think that is?


I have many theories. I think that they’re more comfortable with wine yet they aren’t comfortable enough with not knowing all about it — because everyone has to know everything now. It’s the generation of Google. So if they aren’t quite sure about a wine, and they don’t have anybody to help them with it, they’ll just as soon go with a glass of Sancerre or a Chianti. And someone else at the table might have the same glass; so what? Three or four glasses of the same wine; you don’t need a bottle. It’s very weird. It’s not economically smart. But it seems to be the wave of the future.

Now, I sell a lot of bottles of wine, but they’re generally [to] 50-year-olds and older. They’re comfortable with that. They want to buy a bottle. They know about wine, they’re comfortable asking about wine, they’re comfortable looking and doing some work on the list. I’m not so sure the immediate gratification of the Millennial generation cares to do that much work.


Let’s go back even further. How did you get your start in this business to begin with?

The Paleozoic era. Wow! In 1986, I opened Michela’s restaurant with Michela Larson. The opening chef was Todd English. It was exciting, because he was like nobody I’d ever seen. I was new to the business myself. I was young, and I’d never seen food like that before. I mean, the way he threw food around the kitchen and did all these wild things with big pieces of meat. He was really great to work for. I loved it. He’s temperamental, but, you know, most chefs are. And then Olivia was there, as the general manager, his wife. And then one day, she just said, “I don’t want to do the wines anymore. I can’t; I don’t have time. You do them.” And I really had some knowledge, but not much. I was just learning. So I started to do them, and that was the start.

Did you always want to work in restaurants? Where did you actually break into the food and wine business?

I graduated with a degree in English literature and creative writing. In 1981, there were not many jobs back then. I started to work in the restaurant business just for some money, and I loved it. And I never got out of it.


What was your first job ever?

My first job ever was at The Provincetown Inn. I worked breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week and went to the beach in between.

Take me back to the ‘80s and ‘90s. People reading this might not have even been born back then. What was the Boston food scene like?

It was very exciting. It was nouvelle cuisine. People were suddenly noticing fine dining Italian. It wasn’t just North End Italian anymore. They were doing some finer foods and not just the heavy French butter cream sauces. They were starting to grill things and use more vegetables and plate differently. Things weren’t stuffy. Servers were younger. Customers were comfortable going out. The tech business was coming out to dinner and spending money. Our major client was Lotus on that Memorial Drive stretch. We had some high-tech people just starting to come in.

You know, Americans really, in 1985, didn’t know a lot about food. There were only a few restaurants around at that point that were doing that kind of food. So it was really exciting. It’s evolved since then. But, you know, every generation has their own excitement, I guess.

How would you contrast it to now? Has it gotten more exciting? Are there things you miss? Do you wish it were the old way?

I think service has not come along as good as it used to be. I think servers are taxed and stretched thinner and thinner with their jobs because of lack of staff. I think it’s hard for servers to give the service that they probably would like to give; back then, we didn’t have as many people, and it was just easier to work in a restaurant. Here, it’s harder, it’s much more stressful, because the money’s more, the checks are higher, the people are more discerning because they’ve been dining out for 40 years, and they know what good food is now. It’s a little tougher from a service standpoint, I think. But, as far as the food goes, there’s a lot of exciting food. It’s much more ethnic. It’s much more diverse. There’s a lot more choices you know. Before, you went out for Italian or French or steak. You had cheap Chinese, and that was about it.


What restaurants do you miss the most?

Oh geez. Being in the business, I very rarely go out. I don’t want to sit in a restaurant on my night off. But what do I miss? That’s a good question. I loved Hamersley’s Bistro. I really miss that. That was kind of a throwback to the era of dining in the ‘80s. I miss that restaurant a lot.

Who are some notable people you’ve served?

How about notable people I’ve trained? That’s the bigger question. These are the people who got their start with me at Michela’s: Todd English, of course. Christopher Myers. He started as a coat-check there, by the way. Joanne Chang started as a pastry assistant there. Barbara Lynch got her first cooking job at Michela’s. She was right out of culinary school.


What was she like back then?

She was great. She was very green. Very excited. She brought a lot of good ideas to the kitchen. Todd really liked working with her. You had to train her a little bit. She was very inexperienced. But she came along real quick. She’s very talented. She became a good friend of mine, too. And then also Jody Adams was a chef there as well. She came from Hamersley’s, where she was a sous chef, to be the head chef at Michela’s and then went on with Michela to open Rialto.

You hear a lot about how brutal kitchen culture is. Especially back then — what has changed? Or has it changed?

For me, it wasn’t bad, because I’m a pretty strong woman and nobody screwed around with me. I didn’t really think it was that bad. I was never in the kitchen. I was always in the front of the house. So it was always pretty brutal back in the kitchen. It’s still pretty brutal back in the kitchen. I want to step on a limb and say it’s not so gender-specific brutal. It’s just in-general brutal. It’s a very high-stress, volatile environment, and people just yell at people all the time. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are. You just get yelled at.

The hours are hard. The hours are long. Maybe it’s not conducive to having a family. Do you have to sacrifice anything in terms of lifestyle?

That’s a very, very good question because many women once they want to start a family — I don’t have a family — they can’t do it. It’s just too much work. They have to make a choice: Do I spend time with my children and my family? Or do I go to work? They have to make a really tough choice, and they try to balance it, and I’m not so sure it’s easy. … I don’t envy those people at all.

I know Jody [Adams] really tried to do that balance with her two kids. Michela had two sons. It was very hard for them. And I should mention at Il Capriccio, Jeannie Rogers. She was a very big figure in women in wine in Boston, her and Cat Silirie. They were the first few women who really did the wine directing, the buying, and ran the show. She was a mentor of mine, and I have the utmost respect for her. She really paved the way for all of us.

For the average person reading this: Where do you buy wine?

In Andover, there’s a shop, Wine-Sense, owned by an Italian woman. It’s really good. Very good. I would shop there for sure. I would shop at Bin Ends. There are several locations. Cat Silirie is actually working there now, selling wine. … There’s a shop right across the street from us in Waltham called Vino Italiano. The store is owned by La Campania’s restaurant owner, David Maione. Impeccable selections. Really good pricing. For Italian wine, that’s the place to go for sure.

Who are your favorite local chefs?

Jody Adams. She’s one of the few who are still doing it. I love her, and her food, and as a person she’s wonderful. And Marisa Iocco. She has a place in Needham [Spiga]. She’s another tough chick from Italy.

Are there any food or wine trends that just annoy you?

You’re going to be sorry you asked that question. For instance, taking yourself too seriously. Talking about the food too much. Explaining every little thing about the dish and the provenance. That just annoys me. Just, you know, tell me what it is. I’ll ask a question if I don’t understand. I don’t need to know everything that goes into the dish. I just don’t.

Small plates for a lot of money, where you don’t get any vegetables and a little bit of protein and it’s $40. That bothers me. I think people aren’t getting enough food for the price. Not serving bread with dinner, or if you want bread, you have to pay for it. That’s annoying. Mostly just charging too much for too little. I understand the challenges, but you can put some vegetables on the plate. I mean, people like vegetables, you know?

What notable people have passed through your restaurants?

I waited on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward once; that was great. They used to come in a lot to Michela’s. They were very genuine. Down to earth. Knew a lot about wine.

Edwin Land from Polaroid, who founded the Polaroid Corporation. … He was something; he was a character. I thought he was a wonderful man, Edwin Land. Arnold Palmer I waited on once; I’m a golfer, so I was thrilled. He came in and didn’t look at the menu. He wanted vodka, a steak, a potato, and for dessert, chocolate ice cream. That’s all he cared about. He was funny.

Favorite binge-watch?

Right now I’m finishing “Stranger Things.” “Bridgerton” I loved. I like the Stanley Tucci show on CNN. Stupid stuff like — oh, I’ll give you a good one, “Cobra Kai.” You can even say that. I don’t care if I look silly. I’m old enough to not care.

What do you think of people who put ice cubes in their white wine?

Well, if I catch them doing it, I do make a face, and I say something. I cock one eyebrow and say, “Are you kidding me?” I have a way of doing that where people don’t get mad at me because I’m kind of making a joke. I have one woman who comes in, puts the ice cubes in, and she looks around. I see her doing it. She gets a spoon, and she puts her hand over the glass and does it. And then I look over and she says, “Oh my gosh, you caught me again!” But it’s OK. Who cares? I don’t care. Let them drink however they want, as long as they drink it.

Last but not least, any tips for wine novices who want to look sophisticated?

When you’re already at the table and you haven’t prepared and you’re handed a 600-page wine list? Ask for help, especially if you’re a guy. This is what happens: The man will be poring through the wine list. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He wants to find something. There’s a lot of selections. The wife is whispering, “Ask somebody!” I go to the table: “Can I help you with the selection?” and he kind of looks at me and says, “I’m OK. I’m OK.” Waves me off. So I leave and then come back in a few: “I’m here to help. I know it’s a long list; what are you interested in?” And the wife is like, “Ask her for help! Ask for help! She’ll help you.” So finally, they’ll consent, and I’ll give them a bottle of wine. They love it. Cut to the chase. Just ask for help.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.