Ducali, a pizzeria and bar on the edge of the North End, has just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Eater caught up with owner Phil Frattaroli to chat about the first five years in business as well as his next venture, Cunard Tavern, a gastropub in East Boston.
Congratulations on five years. That's quite the accomplishment.
Thanks! Sometimes it feels like it's gone by so fast, and sometimes it seems like it's gone by pretty slowly, but it's a milestone. They say something like one out of ten restaurants make it to the five-year mark, so it's good. It doesn't necessarily mean that we're set for life, but it's just a cool moment to get to.
Tell me about the start of Ducali and the original concept.
I grew up in the restaurant business. My dad opened a restaurant in East Boston and then Lucia on Hanover Street, so I grew up around it. I then went to law school, and in my last year, my brother was killed in a car accident, and it was right around the time that the economy got real bad. My parents had this space, and it was going to be a hookah bar, but with the economy so bad, all of the investors pulled out and walked away from it.
So we had this empty space. Since I knew the restaurant business pretty well and even though I never expected to [open one], I used to always plan out a restaurant concept. As the months went on, no one came to look at the space, so we thought we'd put together a company. Best case scenario, we sell it to someone and make it more attractive to a potential tenant. We also had a liquor license that we had to use, or we'd lose it. There were a lot of different factors. It's been awesome, and I've had the opportunity to give back to the community. I just never wanted to sell.
Do you remember the first day?
Yeah, it was scary. It's kind of like having a party, and for the first 15 or 20 minutes, you're worried that nobody's going to show up. In a business like this, you have a lot of money invested in equipment, people, and food, so it's pretty scary until someone shows up. But it's also a great feeling to sit back and see all that we've been able to accomplish in such a competitive neighborhood. We try to keep our prices low and be a neighborhood place, but we are right along the Freedom Trail, so we get a lot of visitors as well.
How much has your menu changed since you first opened?
Well, the beers change all the time, and so do the wines. The core pizza menu stays pretty much the same, but about 20% of it changes seasonally, or we'll change things around based on what's selling and what's not. Unfortunately sometimes that means that some of my favorite pizzas get removed. We have a potato pizza that's one of my favorites, but I think the whole carbs-on-carbs thing scares people away.
Do you have a signature dish or one item that has stuck out over time?
The Italian nachos are probably our signature dish, and they're in line with what we're trying to do here. Those nachos are an Italian take on something popular here in America.
Any memorable anecdotes that you can share?
We've had a bunch of pretty cool days. When they were filming The Town, there's a scene where they go over the Charlestown Bridge. The street was closed down, and all of the stunt drivers were doing the scenes. That was pretty cool. We also get a bunch of the Bruins that come in. But my favorite story has to be when Romney had his campaign headquarters right up the street, and he came in one time and asked for a slice of pizza — and we don't do slices. Now this is a guy worth billions of dollars, and he just left because we didn't give him a slice. He couldn't have given the rest to some of the staff he had working for him?
Looking back over the past five years, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
The restaurant is like a living thing, and things have evolved over time. I was given the advice when I started that a business is like a monster, and you want to feed the monster so that it doesn't eat you. You have to make sure the monster, or business, is satisfied and has everything it needs to become successful. My dad has also given me lots of advice on operations and how to run a kitchen.
What's coming up in the next five years?
My grandfather was a woodworker, and he owned a cabinet company in East Boston. That area has changed a lot. It used to be all industrial, but now it's becoming a nice neighborhood. My grandfather's selling the building, and I'm going to buy it and turn it into a restaurant — kind of a gastropub. It's in a great area, with brownstones and great views of the city. There are not really that many restaurants where you can sit down there. We'll do something along the lines of Ducali, low prices and good beer. That's what we're working on now. It's been an interesting process because we're going to have to tear down the building and build a new one. It's kind of a scary proposition, and it's been a challenge, but it's been fun being able to use my skills as a lawyer, too.
We're looking at early 2016 once the permits and all of this is done. We're naming it Cunard Tavern. That area of Boston was sort of like Ellis Island, and there were lots of shipping wharfs. The particular wharf that this restaurant will be on was called Cunard Wharf, named after Cunard Lines, and there used to be this dive bar out there called Cunard Tavern. We're getting our name and inspiration from that part of the city, its history, and also taking from the industrial feel of it. I'm very excited about it, and we'll have the opportunity to do some pretty cool things, especially environmentally, because we're doing it from scratch and can build it that way. We've got such a great staff here and there are a lot of people that I want to give more responsibility to.
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