After moving to America from the Abruzzo region of Italy, Donato Frattaroli and his family opened Lucia Ristorante & Bar on Hanover Street in the North End in 1977, one of only six or seven restaurants in the neighborhood at the time. Frattaroli sat down with Eater to discuss his favorite memories of the past 35 years, from U2 sightings to the blizzard of '78 to an invitation to the domain of the prince of Liechtenstein.
Does it feel like it's been 35 years? I am 35 years old. No. [Laughs.] No, it doesn't feel like it's been 35 years. We like the people we work with; we love our customers.
What do you remember about opening day? I was looking at some photos recently. We had checkered tablecloths and all types of stuff on the walls. On opening day, it was only a few friends and family that came over to wish us good luck. Once we opened to the public, we just got by that first year. Then after the first year we got a beautiful write-up. Actually, we got two write-ups: one was beautiful, and one was very ugly. The very ugly one was from Boston Magazine. And the very beautiful one was from the real paper, by a gentleman by the name of Robert Nadeau. He's the guy that put us on the map. The restaurant was the place where everyone wanted to be. There would be lines every night outside. And then all of a sudden they opened up a restaurant across the street, and another restaurant over there. All these restaurants started to open up. When we had first opened up there were probably six or seven restaurants in the North End, at most.
The North End became the prime area for anybody who wanted to visit Boston. I remember back in 1979, Pope John Paul went down the street. I remember when Clinton was walking down the street in the '90s. And Hanover Street was unbelievable during the World Cup in 1994. Everybody was in Boston. Everybody was dressed in blue. You had people from all over the world, good people. There were never any problems. Anytime there was a major event, everyone was in the North End. When the Tall Ships came, it was the same thing.
Any celebrity sightings in the restaurant? What do you think? [Laughs.] U2. Who else? Forgive me. I'm going senile. But the one that sticks out the most is when the band U2 came in - on several occasions. And we had the Pistons in here. We had the 49ers in here. A lot of the hockey players and baseball players come in. Football players come in. The only ones we never really see in here are the basketball players, although Kobe Bryant and Isaiah Thomas have been in. Also, Ryan Seacrest. If you go on YouTube and search for "Ryan Seacrest Lucia Restaurant," you'll see him talking with the customers. The mayor comes in, and a lot of the politicians come in. So it's been a great experience over the years. But the one thing that has stuck in my mind for the longest time is one particular guy that a friend of mine brought in here. One night they came in and asked me to join them. At the end of the night, the gentleman said to me, "Anytime you would like to visit my domain, you will be my guest." Nobody's used that word with me. He was the prince of Liechtenstein.
Did you ever go to visit his domain? No, I never did.
What has been your most challenging time at the restaurant? The first day was very challenging. The years after that - I wouldn't call them challenging. Even with all the restaurants opening up around here, taking a percentage of business away, it made you stay on your toes to be better than the others. To be competitors. And I think we did a pretty good job doing that. When we started, it was me and my siblings and my parents, the whole family working together toward the same goal. We achieved that, and now our kids are taking over the reins, slowly.
Aside from more restaurants opening up, how has the neighborhood changed over the last few decades? The whole area changed, and I tell you, it changed for the better. While a lot of people who had been living here before cannot afford to live here anymore, or they moved out because of things like parking, it still is one of the most beautiful places all over Boston. There are less and less families - it's because of how expensive it is to live here - so you have a lot of younger professionals, a lot of students. There are some families living in the North End, but these families used to have five, six kids. Now it's one or two. It's also probably one of the only areas in Boston that has a lot of elderlies living in it. A lot of them probably moved out at some point, but now they're all coming back. It's easier for them to get around. If they have to go to the doctor, to the pharmacy, everything's within reach. And there are more people coming into the North End today. Before the Big Dig, the North End was separated, all cut off from the city. Now it's part of the city.
How often does the menu change? That's a question that everybody asks me every day of the week, and that's a question - or an issue - that I've had a lot of conflicts about with my son. For many years, none of the food critics in Boston would write about this restaurant because they considered it the most old-style or Italian-American restaurant. And I disagree with them 100%. We do have staples on the menu, but we have a lot of other dishes. I'd like to cut the menu in half, but I can't because people come in every day looking for certain items on the menu, so we have them. But every day, our chefs do two or three different specials.
What's your favorite dish? Maccheroni chitarra. It's the pasta we grew up with - one of the most famous pastas where I grew up [near the Abruzzo region of Italy]. It's an egg noodle pasta. 10 minutes before we were going to eat, my mother would mix it and cook it. The noodles look like guitar strings; that's where the name comes from. You'll see any type of sauce to dress it. You can make a nice sauce with tomatoes, meats. Today we're making it with mushrooms.
What's your single favorite story about the restaurant from the entire time it's been open? One of them is the blizzard of '78. Everybody was saying that we were going to get a snow storm, so we came into the restaurant, and there were barely any customers. It was me, my brothers, the waiters, and a couple customers that lived close by. Me and my brothers and a couple of waiters, we slept in the restaurant, on the booths. All of a sudden the power went out; it was freezing. We went to the kitchen and put all the stovetops on to keep warm. Then a big backhoe came down the street to clear it, and they got all the snow piled in front of the restaurant. We couldn't get out. The next day we were able to clean up, and we took a taxi or something to go home, but you looked down Hanover Street, and you'd never seen so many people walking, and everybody was just having a fantastic time. The whole city was blocked for almost a week.
If you could go back to just before opening and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be? Don't go into the restaurant business. Why? I'll tell you why. A few years ago, my mother got sick, and I was talking with my mother, and she said, "The restaurant business ruined my family." And she was 100% right. You never spend a holiday with your family. You never go on vacation with your family. You never go to any types of functions with your family. You don't even have a meal together as a family. All you do - you work, and you worry about the customers.
Any changes planned for the restaurant for the next year? We just finished doing a lot of work on the restaurant - the facade, the windows, the entrance. That's pretty much it for now. We also have a brand new kitchen, about four years old. The restaurant is on three floors, and I think that every floor is unique. And you can only do so much.
· All coverage of One Year In on Eater [~EBOS~]
In celebration of the big three-five, Lucia is offering a four-course, prix fixe menu for $35 through October 24. It features classic dishes from the early days of the restaurant, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Massachusetts Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation and the Boston Bruins Foundation.