Steve DiFillippo pushes open the papered-over doors to his new restaurant space with the force of a kid ripping into a present on Christmas morning. As he enters the massive, 15,000-square-foot cement box at 50 Liberty, the palatial tower at the tip of Fan Pier, DiFillippo points excitedly around the room, sketching out the expansive new Davio’s in his mind.
“The main entrance and the podium will be here,” he says, “and that’s the bar, and then, that’s the ocean.”
Inside DiFillippo’s well-coiffed head, every detail is complete. There’s the spot where the chef’s table will be, and the pair of private dining rooms on the first floor. Then he sprints up the stairs to the second floor, where he’s planning a function space with a full kitchen — and four more private dining rooms, each with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The harbor stretches out in a wide arc before him, offering a breathtaking horizon from the skyline to the Fan Pier Marina — views that are commanding as much as $11 million for the condos above him.
It’s spectacular — and a sobering reminder of all that DiFillippo is up against: The city is saturated with new restaurants, the Encore Boston Harbor casino is picking off top hospitality talent, and the Seaport is still proving itself as a place where restaurants can thrive.
So this new space, slated to open in the late fall, is ambitious, even considering DiFillippo’s voracious appetite for growth. But it also represents something more to DiFillippo, who at 58 is pondering his legacy.
“See right over there, that’s where Pier 4 was, the restaurant,” he says, pointing down the harbor to the crumbling rubble of the next pier where, for a half-century, Anthony Athanas hosted the city’s glitterati at his namesake restaurant.
In its 1980s heyday, Anthony’s Pier 4 was among nation’s highest-grossing restaurants, taking in about $12 million a year. But it closed in 2013, as much a victim of encroaching development as changing tastes.
DiFillippo is clear about his hopes for this new restaurant and this particular function space, which he’s planning to call the Athanas Room.
“I’m trying to keep it alive,” he says, noting he’d been mentored early in the course of his 34-year career by Anthony and his family. Like Anthony’s, DiFillippo says, the new Davio’s will be a place for big celebrations, a place with its own history someday.
“I feel like I’ve taken on the legacy of the family,” he says.
It’s a new chapter in the story of Davio’s, which began in 1985, when DiFillippo, then 24, bought the struggling 80-seat Italian restaurant on Newbury Street and transformed it into one of the city’s first see-and-be-seen hot spots. A move to Arlington Street followed 17 years later, and since 2002, Davio’s has been a favorite of the city’s power set.
“It’s a mecca of the VIP people of Boston,” said Herb Chambers, a longtime friend who eats at the Back Bay location several times a week. “He’s got the sports people, the visiting celebrities, musicians and performers, and all of the local people who are powerful in business or politics.”
DiFillippo has now expanded Davio’s to 10 restaurants — including in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Irvine, Calif., and Atlanta, where all of Boston seemingly descended during this year’s Super Bowl, and his hometown of Lynnfield — with over $100 million in annual sales.
And he has plans for more. In addition to this new Seaport venue, he’s opening a Logan Airport outpost this summer and has locations in North Dallas, Virginia, and Pittsburgh on the books for next year.
“In a world that’s really become dominated by publicly owned major national chains with big professional management structures, Steve is an outstanding outlier,” said Jonathan Kraft, a friend and confidant of DiFillippo’s who also pushed him to get in the grocery game. He now sells over $25 million worth of sausages and spring rolls in stores around the country.
DiFillippo wasn’t looking to go into the Seaport. But when his Back Bay lease was in question, he and his wife and business partner, Pamela Small, began contemplating new locations.
One evening, DiFillippo encountered 50 Liberty’s developer, Joe Fallon, at Legal Sea Foods in the Seaport. They started talking, and when DiFillippo saw the 50 Liberty space, he was smitten. He ended up renegotiating the Back Bay lease for an additional 10 years while closing on the Seaport address for a 20-year lease. He started work in the Seaport Monday.
Fallon said DiFillippo was eager to pick up the mantle of classic Italian waterfront dining where Anthony’s Pier 4 left off. (He’s also a big fan of the popovers, which DiFillippo started serving at Davio’s as a tribute to Anthony’s several years ago.) “I don’t think there’s any better steward,” Fallon said. “He sees this now as his signature restaurant, going forward.”
There is one sticking point: Woods Hill Table, a farm-to-table restaurant, will soon occupy the bottom of the new Pier 4 condo tower.
“While the Anthony’s Pier 4 experience could never be replicated, we do hope to honor its legacy,” Woods Hill Table’s owner, Kristin Canty, said at the time of the announcement.
But DiFillippo dismisses any outsider’s attempt to lay claim to the Athanas history. “I don’t know if they know the family like I do,” he says.
The Athanas family referred questions to a spokesman, George Regan, who also represents DiFillippo. Regan said the Athanas sons were honored by DeFillippo’s recognition of their father’s “pioneering” contributions.
Family legacy is something that DiFillippo thinks about often. His father, who once ran a successful business selling uniforms, died last year, and he now wears his wedding ring on his right hand. His 29-year-old son, Michael, will work alongside him at the new restaurant, and he says hisdaughter wants to have her wedding in the Athanas Room.
“I think about Davio’s, and I don’t want it to go away,” he says.
But most restaurants don’t last forever. DiFillippo knows this, but if he needs a reminder, he knows he can look across the waterfront to the pier where Anthony’s used to be and watch the waves lap against the rocks. He says he has a fear that one day he’ll start to hear that Davio’s isn’t as good as it used to be.
“You really need to keep changing,” he says. “When I look out over to Pier 4, there’s a reason they’re not there anymore.”Janelle Nanos can be reached at email@example.com.