I’m sitting at The Blue Room’s bar with Vilardi, concentrating on my superior sparkling water. This time one year ago, I wouldn’t have had the chance to be so entranced by H2O; The Blue Room and Belly were both shuttered following the catastrophic fire that affected several businesses at Cambridge’s One Kendall Square, where both restaurants are located. Vilardi and her husband, chef and co-owner Nick Zappia, took to their social media accounts to inform their guests and followers of the heartbreaking news.
The loss felt by the Kendall Square neighborhood was multi-generational; The Blue Room opened in 1996, and its quiet dining room proffered up classic farm-fresh New England fare, serving the dining needs of the Cambridge academic and biotech business sets. Belly, by contrast, was the new kid on the block, marked by bright, modern design and small plates, playing to the millennial aesthetics of the tech start-up industry incubating around the MIT campus. Divided by a sliding recycled barn door, the two restaurants had something for everyone: Tinder dates on one side, faculty dinners on the other.
It’s likely that Vilardi’s ability to flit seamlessly from topic to topic has served her well as the owner and proprietress of two restaurants with such distinctly differing identities. It’s certain that her Texas-born tenacity is what saw her through the challenges of rebuilding two restaurants at once while raising a child and running Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, the wine and cheese shop the couple opened in Central Square in 2009. But maybe what has helped define the progress of both restaurants is the fact that she sort of grew up in these dining rooms.
Vilardi tells the story of her "Ah-ha!" wine moment as a scientist might describe discovering a new species. She was living in Beacon Hill and working in finance. She was (as these stories often go) unfulfilled. Missing the unstructured energy of her college gig serving at Stephanie’s on Newbury, Vilardi started evening culinary classes — still, it wasn’t enough to make her quit her day job. One night after work, she swung by Charles Street Liquors and picked up a bottle of Giuseppe Mascarello Dolcetto. "I bought it because it was Italian, honestly. I got it home and was like, ‘Woah, this is stinky. This smells like horse manure.’ I remember looking at it and going, ‘OK. I like this.’ I went back and bought several more bottles." She ended up not in the kitchen, but in the front of house, as a server at The Blue Room, where Zappia was chef and co-owner at the time. That was nearly 17 years ago.
Today, though she has the support of Zappia and longtime general manager Melissa Chamness, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Vilardi steering the ship back into port. "I like creating moods," she says. Who better to recreate the mood of two beloved restaurants than someone who experienced career change, business ownership, professional success, marriage, and motherhood in the orbit of those dining rooms?
Of course, whenever a restaurant closes and reopens for any reason, the very first thing people want to know is, "What changed?" Is there a new menu? Is it now one of those dining-in-the-dark places?
"The cellars are smaller," Vilardi says. "Especially Belly’s. It’s tiny, actually. It’s freaking me out." But the list is smaller owing to the existing inventory Vilardi had on hand after the fire (the stuff that didn’t get consumed in the interim, that is), and while she admits it was a hard choice to make, it seems like it’s also proving an excellent opportunity for creativity through constraints. Not that the programs at either restaurant were ever lacking in fun (see the aforementioned hairy armpits), but sometimes being faced with limitations is what forces chefs and wine directors alike to remember what excites them most.
Following the fire, Vilardi looked at her inventory and found herself surrounded with back-vintage white wines. Now, she says, "I’m in a place where I’m not afraid to say that I think I prefer white wine. I’m gonna make people drink white wine. I’m gonna make people drink older, more viscous white wine." The greatest asset to any wine program is an excited steward, and there’s no doubting that Vilardi is excited.
"I'm gonna make people drink white wine"
It’s perhaps most obvious at Belly, which Vilardi describes as "anything goes with piercings in places people don’t talk about," versus The Blue Room, which sticks to "blue blazers and black dresses." When the wine bar reopened in the dwindling days of August, her inspiration came from one of the only appliances I would ever consider calling sexy — a vintage, baby blue Frigidaire. Where else to put all that awesome white wine?
And though anything goes at Belly most of the time, sometimes, it doesn’t. Vilardi experimented with an interactive cellar that eschewed the printed list in favor of bringing guests to the wine room to select from the wines offered by the bottle, but most guests weren’t particularly thrilled to get up from their seats. At the time of our interview, she was planning to go back to a printed bottle list. "I get it," she says. "I’ve realized that there’s a one percent with diners. That’s mostly us who work in the industry, and maybe a few regular people who just love to dine out. We’re up for the adventure. For the other 99 percent, it’s a respite. They want to sit and relax. They don’t want to make decisions. That’s another reason why the smaller cellar makes sense. There are fewer choices."
That doesn’t mean lack of diversity, though. Vilardi says she continues to draw inspiration from the changing seasons, and the Belly list’s newest incarnation is an ode to all things autumn: oyster-friendly wines for peak bivalve season; lean, mineral-driven reds from river locales to love all over New England root veg; and sangiovese in nearly every iteration. Where did Vilardi find the framework for this seasonal list? The Talking Heads discography, of course, with sections labeled "Psycho Killer" and "Take Me To The Water." It’s a wine list as much as it’s a celebration of a favorite musician and a political statement, all at once.
It’s clear that the state of this election season is front of mind for Vilardi in some ways, especially as a female owner of a small business. For all of her success in the restaurant industry, Vilardi says she’s frequently reminded of her gender. She tells a story of an applicant who approached two male colleagues at Belly when inquiring about a job before realizing that she was, in fact, the owner. "I used to think it was because I was young," she says. "But, it still happens. Turning 40, it’s a number at which you’re supposed to have clout. It’s not that I’m too young to know what I’m doing. So now I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. This is because I’m a woman. This is what this is.’"
So how does she deal? "By being right," she says.
Vilardi’s somewhat humble beginnings as a server at The Blue Room don’t tell like humble beginnings when you’re in her presence. It’s not difficult to imagine the foreshadowing of future talent that was likely obvious to those around her when she was first learning. (Her "Ah-ha!" moment wine was Mascarello Dolcetto, for chrissakes.) As the cellars morph, the lists quote David Byrne, and Vilardi continues to try to get her guests to drink chilled red wine, her unshakeable, rapid-fire curiosity is easy to spot. Today, as The Blue Room and Belly return to the Cambridge dining scene with Vilardi at the helm, it turns out that not much has changed, maybe ever. In this case, that’s a good thing.
Wine Words is a series in which Eater Boston contributor Lauren Friel interviews some of the most interesting wine professionals in the Boston area.
Wine Words illustration by Emily Phares
Main image of The Blue Room by Rachel Leah Blumenthal