A HUG, a loud kiss on each cheek (``Hummnn-uh! Hummnn-uh!'') -- flaring mustache, sweaty stubble, and all -- and you are initiated into Mario Boccabella's restaurant family. The greetings hello and goodbye, like wet pasta, leave an unmistakable imprint.
They are not, however, just displays of affectionate exuberance. Behind Mr. Boccabella's effusive manner operates a practical business philosophy.
Restaurant and food product audiences must be built. So must staffs. And the vital binding element is a spirit of community.
In a decade, Mario Boccabella and his brother, Alfredo, have built a modest sub shop in Newton Highlands -- a suburban corner of old Victorian homes west of Boston -- into a mini food conglomerate: two restaurants, an Italian deli, a bakery and espresso shop, and a fresh pasta factory. Through these outlets Mario tries to share his family's Abruzzese manner of cooking and eating with a wider community.
The base of the business is the family. Twelve members of the Boccabella family, which emigrated to the United States in the 1950s, live in the same house in nearby Needham. Two more houses are under construction on the riverfront property, to further populate the already well-stocked Boccabella compound.
Such proximity is not always easy. But the tensions of close living, taken advantage of, can offer an antidote to the isolation of the modern life style.
Cantin' Abruzzi, the larger of the two Boccabella restaurants, seats customers elbow to elbow. The doorway overflows into the street with waiting patrons.
When Cantin' first opened, Boccabella says, the customers did not feel comfortable with his Italian sense of space. To widen the aisles would have meant raising prices beyond what he thought the clientele -- mostly the regular folk in the neighborhood, young couples, seniors, singles -- could afford to pay. So to dispel the discomfort, he would hug his wife, Antoinette, and call out to the patrons to do the same, making a virtue of the tight quarters.
As suburban living styles have changed, Boccabella has had to adapt.
One challenge was the ``Shogun effect.'' When a spate of television series started to keep patrons home evenings, Boccabella fought back. He took out ads in the local papers and protested that people were getting selfish, hiding out at home and turning their backs on the world.
His customers got the point and his business flourished once again.
More recently, Boccabella observes, people have begun to gather at home around their ``entertainment centers.''
Many feel guilty about not cooking, he says, as if they're letting their children or spouses down. And they do not want to go out. So the developing market is for take-out dinners -- for which Boccabella is opening new outlets in Boston's western suburbs this summer.
At half the cost of eating in a restaurant, families can enjoy their dinners -- and videos -- at home.
Still, society seems headed in an antisocial direction, Boccabella says: ``It's like fighting a typhoon with a hose.''
So, he persists in reaching out. Once a year in August, Boccabella holds an anniversary party for his patrons and neighbors. The quiet community square becomes an Italian fiesta, as he feeds more than 2,000 for free. This year he hosted 5,000 runners from all over the world for the Boston Marathon -- serving the runners more than a ton of pasta, 250 gallons of sauce, several barrels of salad, 7,000 rolls, and a 450-pound cake.
``The rate of change is accelerating,'' Boccabella says of today's restless population, which perpetually wants something new to satisfy its appetite for change. ``The key is to go back to something as direct and simple as you can -- like cooking, for the family.''
Hence the hug and the two-cheek wet-pasta kiss. Cantin' Abruzzi recipes Poached Salmon With Zucchini and Fettuccine 4 salmon steaks, sliced 1 inch thick 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 medium-sized onion, sliced 3/4 pound combined zucchini and summer squash, in 1/4-inch slices Salt and pepper to taste Pinch tarragon (2 sprigs or 1 tablespoon minced fresh, or 1/2 teaspoon dried) 4 bay leaves Pinch parsley (1 sprig fresh) 4-ounce bottle clam juice, or enough to submerge salmon 2/3 of the way in skillet large enough to hold salmon.
Saut'e onion, zucchini, and summer squash in butter until soft and translucent. Remove vegetables to warm platter.
In same skillet add clam juice, salt and pepper to taste, bay leaves, and tarragon. Heat just to boiling, reduce to low heat, and add salmon steak.
Cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
Baste salmon every 5 minutes with poaching liquid.
Serve salmon with vegetables and some of the poaching juices over fresh cooked fettuccine or similar pasta. Clams Casino 8 littleneck clams, yielding 16 half shells 4 tablespoons olive oil 4 slices prosciutto, finely diced 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup green pepper, finely chopped 1/2 cup sweet red pepper, finely chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 1/2 cup parsley leaves, finely chopped 1 cup plain dry bread crumbs (approx.) 4 tablespoons butter
Saut'e prosciutto, onion, peppers, and garlic in olive oil over moderate heat until soft, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Add parsley and enough bread crumbs to soak up oil and result in fairly thick mixture.
Scrub clams; open over bowl to reserve clam juice, making certain that half of clam meat remains in each half shell.
Tightly pack the shells with breadcrumb mixture. Dot with butter. Spoon reserved clam juice over clams in baking dish and bake in 375 degree F. oven until clams begin to sizzle -- about 20 minutes.