At some point in his life, Nick Varano must have been told that the stereotypes of Italian-Americans could be a problem. And then at some other point — and I'm just guessing — he decided that the way to subvert these stereotypes was to exaggerate them and play them for laughs. Or — alternate scenario — he just realized that other people were getting rich on the whole Sopranos/Guido/Goombah act, so why not him? After a recent and generally delicious, if pricey, meal at Strega Waterfront, I have a more paranoid and darker suspicion, which is that Mr. Varano has read what I and others have written about his restaurants and is deliberately thumbing his nose at us. For example, this writer has twice made fun of the television set on the outside facade of Varano's North End restaurant Nico Ristorante. So I walk into Strega, and it has the most intricate and multi-channel TV set-up ever seen in a Boston restaurant. It had sports and network and cable shows on a variety of screens, including some kind of triptych-screen device I can't even find on Google, never mind buy in a store. The new restaurant also pioneers the use of screens in bathrooms. I guess the floors and ceilings are next. For years, this column has generally suggested that readers "never eat anything famous." So who names a restaurant "Nick Varano's Famous Deli" with a menu where everysinglesandwich has a name beginning with "famous"? The "famous pastrami" is pretty good, but is it sarcasm, mania, or quantum mechanics that's at work here?
Focusing on the Varano Group's crown jewel, over on the waterfront: the food at Strega is good, if predictable, and since lots of people like predictable, it's already popular. Harder for me to foresee was that people are willing to overpay for good-if-predictable food in a luxurious (if kind of silly) setting. To get it all into one sentence really does invoke quantum mechanics: Strega Waterfront pushes stereotypes so far past the envelope that the dimension of political correctness is compressed below the threshold of meaning. The whole thing is as phony as a $3,333 bill — and we had a wonderful time.
On the food level, Varano does hang on to good things when he gets them, moving chef Salvatore Firicano here, along with his specialties. All other Varano restaurants put a few choice olives and herbs into the extra-virgin olive oil, with a big basket of Tuscan bread slices to dip — and so does the new one. (Added fun: the bread basket is a metal cone lined with today's Italian newspaper story printed on thin paper.) The irresistible brick chicken and the eggplant rolatini from Nico is on the new menu, although we tried the melenzane al castello ($15), a similar eggplant parm' effect using fresh mozzarella to get the richness in an oilicious mound with the red-sauce flavor we all remember. Sangria isn't Italian, but it goes with the food, and here it is again.