This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Carla Pallotta, and it covers her and her sisters’ decision to go from being hairdressers to successful restaurant owners.
When my sister Christine came in one day to the hair salon we owned and said, “I want to open a restaurant,” I laughed.
I had been a hairdresser for 27 years, Christine for 17. We owned a successful salon doing magnificent business. We had never worked one day in a restaurant.
I said, “I think you’re nuts.” She said, “I’m going in three months. Are you coming or not?”
So I did. We decided that day. In three months, we had a business plan and a location.
We opened Nebo in 2005 in Boston’s North End, the same neighborhood where we grew up. The menu is based on the food that we grew up with, recipes from our mother and grandmother and food from the Puglia region of Italy, where my mother’s family lived. We make our own pasta, we have homemade bread that we make every day. We do all our pizza dough in-house. We do everything: cioppino, seafood, pasta dishes, veal. It’s not Italian-American, it really is true Italian food—everything that we ate every night growing up in our house.
Growing up in the North End, everybody’s door was always open. All my cousins lived in the North End and they would come over every night. We always said, when it came to sitting down to dinner, “It could be the five of us or it could be 25.” We lived in four rooms, but it was no big deal. You just put up a folding table, you sat on couches, whatever you had to do. It was not about the food itself, it was about the whole experience of cooking together, sitting down, eating and joking together.
We wanted Nebo to echo our experiences growing up, and make food that people could share. Not small plates, but shareable food. It’s about sitting down and having a conversation with people and not really thinking about how fancy the food is. It’s just enjoying the meal and enjoying each other’s company.
I don’t think that we were surprised about anything to do with the actual running of the business. I know this sounds crazy, but business is business, numbers is numbers, hospitality is hospitality. But I think the biggest surprise was how different it is trying to get to know your guests in the restaurant than it is a hair salon.
It was not about the food itself, it was about the whole experience of cooking together, sitting down, eating and joking together.
People come to salons to socialize with you. In a restaurant, people come to socialize with each other. So it just takes a little extra time. It took about six months before we knew our regulars at the bar. But once we established those relationships, it was great.
We were in the North End for eight years and doing a fabulous business. Then the rent went up and we decided that we didn’t want to work for the landlord, we wanted to work for ourselves.
So we moved down to the waterfront on the Rose Kennedy Greenway four years ago. We went from 110 seats in the dining room to 180, and we added a 75-seat patio. Our staff went from 35 to more than 80. It was a really good thing for us. We got the outdoor seating that we had wanted, and we took all of our workers with us, paying them during the time we were building the new restaurant.
And, to be honest, running this bigger restaurant has actually been a little easier because you have enough staff to help each other and fill the gaps. They care about Nebo. They want the guests to be happy.
It’s noisy in the restaurant sometimes, but that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be what we had in my family’s house. It’s supposed to be fun, people talking from table to table and socializing. It’s an Italian home.
They care about Nebo. They want the guests to be happy.
My mother is 83 years old. She comes in all the time. We have a special place for her to sit near the kitchen. She’s the matriarch. Guests always ask for her and they’ll go up to her and talk. And these are people who don’t even know her. They tell her how great her food is, they tell her that the love the history of the family, they tell her that they love all of the traditions. She’s really proud to share this with people.
And we feel alive all day long.