Getting Salty with Jo Megwa of Piattini and Ora
Jo Megwa grew up in East Boston, the youngest of 10 children. She’s the only one not born in Italy — but you’d never know it. Now, she runs two Italian restaurants in the Back Bay: Piattini, which opened in 2001, and Ora, new this summer. There, she serves pizza with a precise texture. “We try to go right in the middle: not soggy, like they do in Italy where you need a knife and fork, but crisp without being burnt,” she says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Santarpio’s in East Boston! I ordered the traditional margherita pizza. I don’t even think they call it that. Cheese pizza! As a kid, I thought it was fantastic. I grew up in East Boston, literally around the corner.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? The biggest challenge has been finding dedicated staff that’s passionate about the business and doesn’t just think of it as a temporary job to make a few dollars and then move on after weeks — not even months any more! That has changed a lot in the 18 years I’ve been [in the business]. I’ve seen a dramatic shift. They don’t want to do this for the rest of their lives. They want to make a quick buck and then leave.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? We’re a lot more diverse, and that’s great. In another way, you know, mom-and-pop and chef-inspired places get replaced by big steakhouses, big chains. You know, I don’t want to name them, but I feel like I’m part of a factory. If I’m going to go out, I want to feel the warmth of space.
What other restaurants do you visit? Down on the South Shore, Café Bella in Randolph. I also love Oleana in Cambridge. I love [Ana Sortun], and I love what she’s doing. I sometimes go to Toro, but I haven’t been in a long time. When they first opened, I was there a lot, but I fell out of that mood. I’ve been too busy to go anywhere!
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I was 16 and went to Italy and went to a bar. I’m the youngest of 10, and everyone else was born in Italy. It was more like a restaurant, and it was owned by not an uncle, but we called him uncle. That’s what we do in a small town. Everyone is your uncle. He ran and operated this bar, and he had a huge display of antipasti. It was red peppers, mushrooms, grilled artichokes, and people would self-serve. He was meeting everyone, talking with everyone. I love that type of eating. I love picking at little things! The best of all worlds. I just love the feeling of warmth.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I went to one of my favorite little places in Boston. They missed the three points of service: food, service, and atmosphere. It was dirty. They missed on all three. The food wasn’t the same: cold, tasteless. I had to send it back. I almost never do that. The server looked like she didn’t want to be there. She was overworked and shouldn’t have been in the business to begin with. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be in this business. You must enjoy meeting other people! I never went back since. It’s a cliché, but I lost a little friend. I wasn’t angry; I was sad. It’s in the North End.
How could Boston become a better food city? I would like to see the entry point of restaurants be a little easier to get into for these young chefs from all around the world who have something great to offer. I was recently in Italy and met this great young chef who wants to move to the US. He has a little restaurant. He wants to come to the US and he married an American woman, but rents are so high. You need a million dollars to open a 50-seat restaurant. It shouldn’t be that difficult, that hard. If the entry were lower, we’d see a lot more [variety]. We have a great variety, but it’d be even better.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Sophisticated, gracious, happy. Grateful.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Salad in a bowl, healthy-healthy, but God, read the calories! Read the ingredients! It’s not healthy! The whole spiel is healthy, but it’s 900 calories. People are in line, waiting for this stuff, and it’s not healthy! You can eat healthy anywhere you go. It’s a matter of smaller portions, no dressing, less cheese, no butter.
What are you reading? I just reread “The E Myth” by Michael Gerber.
How’s your commute? Horrible. I live in Norwell. It used to take me 40 minutes door to door back in the mid-2000s. And the last three years, four years, have been horrible. I don’t know if it’s Uber, or people on phones, but it takes me an hour-and-a-half to two. And now there always seems to be construction.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Tripe. Ugh! Gross. It’s a big thing in the Italian community. It’s considered a delicacy. Mayor Menino used to get it from my sister’s place in East Boston, Meridian Market. They’re famous for it. I tried it. I didn’t like how it smelled. My mother would make it on Saturday mornings, and it’d stink up the house. That and rabbit are two things I can live happily the rest of my life without eating.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? More smaller and chef-inspired places.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Biba. I loved the lobster pizza at the bar.
Who was your most memorable customer? One of my first customers at Piattini came in for just a drink and ended up being one of my best friends. When he came in, we were so new, and he ordered a bottle of Dom Pérignon and then ordered it for everyone in the restaurant. He was like, ‘You’re new! You have to create a memory for these people!’ So everyone got a glass of Dom on the house thanks to this anonymous angel.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? The melanzane affumicate, one of our most famous popular dishes at Piattini, layered with eggplant, smoked mozzarella, and a truffle cream sauce. It’s too many calories, but I don’t care. It’s my last meal!