How Somerville’s Oldest Restaurants Stay Relevant in a Changing City

Leone'sPhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

As people flock to Somerville, new restaurants fueled by imaginative concepts have proliferated, from Juliet’s rotating dining experiences to Health Club, the “fast-casual superfood spot” run by the owners of 3 Little Figs.

But the city is also home to many restaurants that have been around since long before Somerville’s recent renaissance. Scout took a tour of some of the ’Ville’s oldest restaurants to see how they’ve thrived through the years.

Our takeaways? They’ve navigated the shifting landscape by knowing when to adapt and when to stand their ground. They’ve cultivated relationships with the people who come through their doors, embedding themselves in the community. And they’re always sure to serve up quality food.

Vinny’s Ristorante

Vinny’s Ristorante has been in business on Broadway for almost 50 years. When it opened in 1969, it was a mom-and-pop corner store. It morphed into a deli and started making sandwiches in the ’80s, and was carry-out only until 1984, when it started a small section for lunch only. Ten years later, Vinny’s opened up additional seating downstairs and started serving dinner.

“All of the changes were made because customers asked for them, from serving sandwiches to customers asking us to open at night,” longtime Vinny’s manager Carmen Aniello says. “But it all started with great food. We don’t advertise, and we just rely on word of mouth.”

Standing on its reputation for serving stellar Italian food, Vinny’s has enjoyed success in Somerville even with Boston’s North End just a short trip away. Chef Vincent Migliore has touted his sauce as the main draw to the restaurant, but Aniello says customers visit Vinny’s for a wide variety of Sicilian-style Italian dishes on the menu, including chicken parm and meatballs.

“Everything is fresh here,” she says. “I think the industry is mostly fast food now and cutting corners. Vinny said long ago that he would only serve what he would eat himself, and he’s a picky eater. For instance, he only uses a certain tomato in the sauce, and that’s that.”

The Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery

Neighborhood

Sheila Borges in front of Neighborhood’s outdoor patio.

Just over Prospect Hill in Union Square, Neighborhood has been serving breakfast and lunch for more than 30 years. While it may be known for its delectable cream of wheat—served with every breakfast—and plates of bread, Neighborhood makes one of the all-around best breakfasts in the city. Eternally busy (even during a Tuesday morning interview), the restaurant prides itself on quick service and an ever-rotating specials list that numbers over a hundred.

But Neighborhood didn’t start as a restaurant. It began as a bakery, selling Portuguese sweet bread.

“When my brother realized he wasn’t selling enough bread to make it, he sliced the bread, added a grill, and made eggs and home fries and got a coffee machine,” owner Sheila Borges says. “That’s how it started. People may come back cause we legit like people. We love food and we adore kids.”

The restaurant’s success has come as a welcome surprise, Borges says. And she thinks business could get even better when Union Square Station Associates (US2) redevelops the square over the coming decades.

Borges says the redevelopment hasn’t impacted the restaurant yet, but she sees it as a good opportunity. And she’s fully aware of changes in the neighborhood.

“The biggest change may be that in the ’80s we were the only restaurant on the block, now there are lots of places to eat,” she says.

Through the years little has changed at Neighborhood, though, and she says that’s one of the reasons people keep coming back. Specials are still handwritten every day, cash is king at the restaurant, and every Saturday and Sunday, the staff puts free coffee outside for diners to drink while they wait to be seated.

“I’m really not sure what our secret is, to be honest, [I’m] amazed daily that people wait to get in here,” she says. “We’re just grateful.”

For Borges, the customers have always been the best part of the job.

“I always like the part of talking to the folks I’ve seen through the years,” she says. “Union Square is still filled with great people.”

Leone’s Sub and Pizza

Leone'sWhile Winter Hill Brewery may have recently drawn hype to the neighborhood, Winter Hill is also home to some of the best pizza in the city.

Leone’s Sub and Pizza, a small, one-room kitchen and takeout bar, has changed very little since it opened 65 years ago—with one big exception. When Leone’s current owners, Nick Ruccolo and Victor Leone, took over the business from Victor’s parents in 1978, they added pizza to the sub-only menu.

“It was an idea we threw around when I started working here with Victor,” Ruccolo says. “We toyed around with the sauce, and that part took time to get right. But we started off small, and we’ve just grown through the years.” Leone’s is now one of the few places in Greater Boston, outside of the North End, where you can get a great Sicilian slice.

The steady influx of repeat customers is a big reason for their success, Ruccolo says, and is the reason he gets out of bed each morning to come to work.

“If someone’s in the same place for 40 years, something must be right,” he says. “I have families that are five generations that come in for food, and I know every one of them. I love it.”

Ruccolo says the changes he’s seen in Winter Hill over the years are too numerous to name, and credits hard work for the restaurant’s success.

“Like everyone, we’ve had ups and downs, but it’s been consistent over the years,” he said. “I can recall in the 1950s when this was a vibrant neighborhood, when it slowed down in the ’80s, and just like before, it’s coming around again. We’ve survived because we’re just us.”

Victor’s Deli

When Rosa and Victor Moccia first opened Victor’s Deli in Ball Square in 1982, it was a deli counter that only offered meats. Since then, they have expanded it into a full restaurant and deli, selling everything from hot and cold subs to soups and salads to entrees including chicken cutlet parmesan with pasta, American chop suey, and Tuscan chicken with prosciutto.

About four years ago, their daughter, Nancy Fucile, and her husband, Jason Fucile, started to manage day-to-day operations. According to Jason, the big draw since Rosa and Victor opened the doors over 35 years ago has been Rosa’s recipes.

“It all really started with my mother-in-law cooking in the back, and someone asked to buy what she was making,” Jason says. “All of our changes, including the expansion, have just been us trying to keep up with demand.”

Jason said that, as with almost every business, there have been ups and downs through the years, but it’s not all about the numbers. “I know it stinks, but criticism is your biggest chance to grow … You have to see the customers and listen to them,” he says.

Aside from growing to include a small sit-down dining room a few years back, he says Victor’s has stayed true to what it does best: homestyle Italian cooking to go.

“The pizza, the calzone, the hot food is really the cement of the business and will never change,” he says. “Of course there’s pressure to change with the times, but if we did that to, say, ‘cater to the new Somerville,’ we’d lose all of our regulars. Our clientele is about 90 percent repeat customers, and they know what they’re getting when they come in.”

While the food may be the main star of Victor’s, Jason credits the Moccia family for bringing customers back again and again.

“We know when someone gets sick or has a graduation or first communion,” he says. “I think that’s the key to our success as well. You have to feed your own product and be here to interact with the people.”

This story appears in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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