Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Faces Behind “Savoring East Somerville”: Vinny Migliore of Vinny’s Deli and Vinny’s at Night

An exciting community blog by Linda J. Mazurek.

This month Linda takes us to an East Broadway staple: Vinny's! Her visit proved to be very timely after the restaurant was showcased on the Food Network earlier this week. She tells of Vinny's past and what makes his restaurant so rich in character and good food!

When most of us think of Italian food, we immediately think “red sauce.” And rightly so, as most of the popular Italian dishes consumed in

the U.S. include some type of tomato sauce. But what sells the best at Vinny’s at Night (www.vinnysonbroadway.com), an Italian restaurant known for its Sicilian cuisine, is meat: stuffed veal chop, double-thick pork chops (“with vinegar peppers, a big seller,” according to Vinny Migliore, owner and head chef), and grilled seafood. And two of the most popular specials are ostrich and rabbit, not covered in tomato sauce. So it’s fitting that Vinny and his meat dishes were profiled on Food Network’s “Meat and Potatoes” on Monday, June 13th at 10:00 p.m.

How did that come to be? “One of the show’s producers was visiting her brother in Somerville at Christmas,” explained Vinny. “And he brought her here for dinner one night.” She fell in love with the place, and a film crew showed up on St. Patrick’s Day and filmed for 10 hours, from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. “They filmed 11 meals here, including my mixed seafood dish (grilled lobster tail, shrimp, and New Zealand mussels), stuffed veal chops, veal osso bucco, and the rice balls,” said Vinny, who doesn’t know what will make the cut.

National TV – not bad for a local boy who taught himself to cook at Bunker Hill Community College and whose deli and restaurant have become some of the most established and most loved dining institutions in the neighborhood! But TV and media exposure (his restaurant has been covered in several local outlets, including the Globe, Phantom Gourmet, Boston Magazine, and Zagat’s) is nothing new for Vinny, who was profiled on Chronicle in 1993, putting his “ristorante” on the map. “They were filming a show about where the great chefs in Boston go to eat,” explained Vinny. “Todd English was sitting across from me, and he said, ‘This is the best broccoli rabe I ever had in my life!’”

Vinny said that Mary Richardson came in after the show first aired, around October, and he sent her a food basket; she called to thank him, not once, but three times! She called again to tell Vinny that the show would be on again in August (1994), asking him what he wanted her to say. She explained that the show would be a repeat, but that she would have a live opening. They came up with: “The bad news is that Vinny’s is only open for lunch, Monday through Friday. Now the good news is that Vinny’s is now open at night!” And it was a big hit, according to Vinny, so much so that he renamed the restaurant Vinny’s at Night.

Vinny’s parents emigrated from Sicily in 1955, when Vinny was seven, and, like so many (including Sal Ferrigno of Patsy’s), settled in Boston’s West End. “It was the best neighborhood in the world! Everybody knew everybody. I knew how you were feeling, if you were sick. We left the windows and doors open – who’s going to bother you?” He has pictures of the families at each other’s houses. He and Sal used to go out together, to dinner and to the beach. He still buys from Sal, especially his mini-pastries. “He’s got great stuff!”

When that neighborhood was razed for redevelopment, the Migliores moved to East Somerville. Vinny didn’t finish school and went to work, first selling papers in Scollay Square and then working in the produce market in Faneuil Hall in the 60s. He bought the variety store in 1969, when he was only 21, from “a nice guy who wanted to stay in Florida. He took a liking to me, gave me a great price. And people helped me out in the beginning, helping me decide what to sell [the produce] for.”

It was before the age of the mega-mart, so Vinny kept the produce up front and opened a deli in the back. One day a year later, a customer came in and said, “Oh, you’ve got a deli back there?” And the proverbial light bulb went off: “What do we say? Thank you!” So he moved the deli up front – “and it went gangbusters” – and got rid of the produce. Then he was looking at an empty room in the back. “You know what? I’ll open a restaurant,” which he did, in 1984. It was open for lunch only for 11 years. (In the meantime, he bought a three-family across the street, on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he still lives today, and got married.)

But he didn’t want to be “under the thumb of a chef – you know how they are!” He attended cooking classes at Bunker Hill Community College two nights a week and learned from his family and “simple common sense.” Arthur Boccelli, the head of the culinary arts program was Italian, and they hit if off. “I was there to learn, and he helped me out. He went with me to buy equipment, started me with a few recipes, taught me lot, and how to make the menu exciting. He also told me how many forks and spoons to buy.”

(That’s Vinny, pointing to the Trinacria. You can find the explanation for this symbol on his menu or Web site. More on the Zagat recognition in Part 2.)

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