5 Courses with Liz Vilardi, co-owner of the Blue Room, Central Bottle, and Belly

Photo: MICHAEL PIAZZA

Liz Vilardi sweeps in looking very Audrey Hepburn — the long neck, the hair that flickers with shampoo-ad shininess. She’s got Southern good manners, but her look is urban cool. She’s a poised presence in the construction zone: today Vilardi is presiding over the finishing touches on Belly (1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617.494.0968), her soon-to-open wine bar and charcuterie. It’s tucked in next to the Blue Room, which Vilardi co-owns with her husband, Nick Zappia, and a 10-minute walk from the sleek wine shop Central Bottle, which they co-own with friends Maureen and Dave Rubino. We’re hidden away in one of Belly’s banquettes, working through a platter of coppa, merguez, and lardo. It’s not a bad way to spend a late-summer afternoon.

You’ve been at the Blue Room for 12 years. How did a nice girl with a finance degree get sucked into the restaurant business? I began as an investment banker and ended up owning restaurants, maybe by accident, maybe not. I’m a Texas girl who wanted an East Coast college with a great football program. BC was perfect. As a student, I started waiting tables on Newbury Street. That’s the obvious part-time job for a college girl, right? When I had a chance to use my finance degree at an investment bank, I jumped at it. I was doing analysis, but my dream was to be on the trading floor. Now that I was making money, I could indulge my “hobby” and get a culinary degree at night at Cambridge Culinary. I did a series of long stages in the kitchen at Lumière with Michael Leviton and at Tremont 647 with Andy Husbands, still keeping my day job in banking. I realized that what I loved about the trading floor was exactly what I love about the restaurant business: total chaos from the minute you open until the gong goes off. You get addicted to the adrenaline.

What’s the Belly concept? If the Blue Room and Central Bottle had a baby, you’d get Belly — artisanal and funky, cutting-edge and intellectually daring. Belly is going to be boisterous, fun, and young. Cozy yet noisy. Twenty-plus wines by the glass, and all sorts of charcuterie — chicken-liver mousse, rabbit rillettes, andouillettes, curated cheeses served with confiture, oysters always, and “snacks” like fried green tomatoes, grilled razor clams, and lamb bacon. And if you are really hungry, a ribeye wood-grilled for two. We want people to come for the wine and stay for it all.

Where did the idea come from? A lot of credit goes to our chef, Robert Grant, who came to us from the Butcher Shop. With Robert, we got a twofer: a chef who cures his own meat; and our cheesemonger at Central Bottle, [his partner] Stephanie Santos, who will be curating the cheeses for Belly. Each day she’ll feature a menu of cheeses: one salt, one fresh, one funk, one whole, one home-grown, one italiano, one français, and the best of “the blues.”

This is our Fall Fashion issue, and you seem pretty stylish yourself. If you had to pick two perfect pieces of clothing, what would they be? A classic navy blazer and a pencil skirt in a bright color. And anything cashmere. You know that black dress in Pretty Woman? I’m from the South. There’s a lot of emphasis on “putting your face on” before you go out.

What don’t people know about you? When I was a little girl, I wanted to be president so I could pass a law that everyone could wear pajamas all day long. I’d still rather be home than out. I’m a closet introvert, a professional extrovert.


Louisa Kasdon can be reached at  louisa@louisakasdon.com.