Al Fresco Dining Returns to the North End

When restaurants in the North End were able to begin resume offering outdoor dining again on Thursday, June 11, during the first step of Phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan for reopening the Commonwealth’s economy, it went off relatively without a hitch and led up to weekend that saw business booming once again in the neighborhood.

“It went as smooth as silk because we were all prepared and ready for it,” Frank DePasquale, president of Depasquale Ventures, and whose North End establishments that began offering al fresco dining again include Mare Oyster Bar, Trattoria il Panino, Quattro and Bricco Ristorante & Enoteca, said Monday. “It was so great to see the smiles on all the faces, especially the patrons. The excitement was over the top. I’m so happy that the elected officials allowed it to happen.”

The outdoor patio on Mother Anna’s on Hanover Street was bustling early Saturday evening.

DePasquale, who is also chairman of the North End Chamber of Commerce, said many of around 70 restaurants in the neighborhood that have been allowed by the city to reopen invested in new outdoor furniture to help maintain state social-distancing guidelines, which require tables be set at least six feet apart from each other. Customers can now occupy these outdoor dining spaces until 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends per the city, and restaurants can begin offering indoor dining again during the second step of the state’s Phase 2, although when that will come to pass now remains unknown.

According to DePasquale, this latest initiative has created an unprecedented sense of camaraderie among North End restaurants.

“Every business owner is working hand in hand,” he said. “It’s unity like I’ve never seen before. Anything another restaurant needs, someone else is there to pitch in, whether it is helping to put out furniture, close up for the night or water their plants.”

For DePasquale’s North End restaurants, business was so good that some patrons were turned away over the weekend due to a lack of available seating.

“We had to refuse many people because of appropriate social distancing and told them to try back the following week,” Depasquale said Monday. “We’re booked solid the whole week. Reservations have just exploded.”

DePasquale has also been able to rehire his entire of around 500, and customers are now more generous than ever when it comes to tipping their servers.

“People really were so generous that [servers] received double what they’ve ever received in the past,” he said. “[Some former employees] who haven’t worked for me in a long time also now want to return.”

Building on this success, DePasquale plans to reopen another of his neighborhood eateries, AquaPazza, on Friday, June 19, for dinner service only, as well as Assaggio, also located in the North End, the following week. His Fratelli Restaurant at the Boston Harbor Hotel is set to reopen for outdoor dining June 29 as well.

In fact, business has been so good DePasquale plans to open a valet station at Cross Street for the benefit of diners from the suburbs.

Antico Forno, another North End restaurant allowed to reopen Thursday, chose to hold off until the following evening out of deference to the weatherman.

“We didn’t open Thursday because there was rain in the forecast so we kind of dodged a bullet, but we’re just happy to get going again,” said Bobby Agrippino, one of the managers of the Salem Street restaurant.

In keeping with social-distancing guidelines, Antico Forno was only allowed to set up seven tables outside, which resulted in a steady influx of customers Saturday night to the point where they too had to turn business away. But Agrippino attributes some occupied tables in part to customers wanting to stay a little longer and savor the experience of dining out again.

“We usually turn over tables fairly quickly outside, but since the weather was nice and people were so happy to be back to dine, they stayed a little longer than usual,” he said. “Compared to a regular Saturday night, we were at about 25 percent occupancy, but we’re encouraged that we got the ball rolling, got back to work and got some momentum. We’re just glad we’re open, so we’re elated right now.”

But despite his apparent enthusiasm, Agrippino said Antico Forno wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term at this rate, especially considering the exorbitant rent it now pays to occupy its current location, as well as for its sister establishment across the street, Terramia Ristorante.

“Outside seating only isn’t going to cut it,” he said, “and once we do open and go back to full capacity, we’re going to be stuck between a rock and hard place, so we’re taking it one day at a time.”

As DePasquale sees it, though, this marks the beginning of a promising new chapter for the North End and its dining scene, albeit one that is arriving long overdue.

“Everyone was coming from all areas of the city to visit the North End – it was like a Feast… and it brought back the feeling of being in Italy,” he said. “Everyone said it should’ve happened 30 years ago. It’s one big family in the North End. It’s always been the greatest neighborhood in the country, and this takes it one step further.”

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