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After 28 years in the restaurant business, Steve DiFillippo is coming home to Lynnfield—and making his dad proud. 

As a teenager in Lynnfield, Steve DiFillippo had a secret: The popular captain of the varsity football team loved to cook.

“If anyone knew that I cooked with my mom on Sundays…” DiFillippo says, trailing off and shaking his head. “It wasn’t so much a secret,” he recalls. “I just didn’t talk about it.”

With four successful restaurants to his credit and several more on the way, DiFillippo, chef/owner of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, is happy to talk about it now.  And his old high school buddies are no longer in the dark, either—he expects to host the 35th reunion for the Lynnfield High School class of ’78 at the newest addition to the Davio’s empire, Davio’s Lynnfield, this fall.

“I’m so fortunate to be able to come back to town,” says DiFillippo, who now lives in nearby Wenham. What’s behind the homecoming, after 28 years owning and operating restaurants? Location, of course. Davio’s will be one of the first outlets to open at MarketStreet, a new mixed-use development on the former Colonial Golf Course along Route 128. The project, anchored by a Whole Foods, will eventually feature up to 20 dining outlets, as well as retail shops, apartments, and a bowling alley.

“Davio’s is a perfect match,” says Ted Tye, managing partner with National Development, which is building the project jointly with WS Development. “We want to be known as a food destination, and Davio’s has a built-in reputation.”

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For his part, DiFillippo says he never considered opening a restaurant in his hometown until MarketStreet’s developers approached him.

“They are building a little city up there,” DiFillippo says. “That’s the kind of place you want to be. If I was all alone on that hill, it would be tough.”

The hill in question, known locally as Colonial Hill, is the site of another of DiFillippo’s cherished childhood memories. He and his daredevil friends used to sled on that very spot every winter. The boys counted it a really good run if they made it all the way to Walnut Street at the bottom of the hill—never giving a thought to the danger of sledding onto a busy street. “It’s crazy that I can have a restaurant overlooking the hill where I used to sled,” DiFillippo says.

It’s an opportunity he admits he couldn’t possibly pass up, in the midst of a year that will almost double his restaurant empire. This spring, he launched Davio’s Cucina, a more casual dining concept, in Chestnut Hill. And in August, the same month DiFillippo opens his hometown branch, he also ventures into New York with a Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse across from Grand Central Station.

Joe Buccieri, Manager, Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse

Joe Buccieri, Manager at Davio’s

It’s clear that Davio’s success comes in large measure directly from DiFillippo himself. While he credits a carefully trained top-notch staff, even referring to them as his inner guests, the staff wouldn’t be there without DiFillippo, who shares his management strategies in a new book coming out this fall from Lyons Press titled It’s All About the Guest: Exceeding Expectations in Business and in Life the Davio’s Way.

In the restaurant industry, which is notable for high turnover, it’s interesting to note that five of the original 15 employees who started with DiFillippo when he purchased Davio’s on Newbury Street in 1985 are still with the company. Joe Buccieri, current general manager of Davio’s Boston, has been with the restaurant for 10 years, despite a rough daily commute from Middleton. He says that DiFillippo has created a family atmosphere for the staff, and that keeps him engaged.

“When you come on here, you don’t leave,” Buccieri quips, adding that people he hired 10 years ago are still on staff. He’ll be moving on soon—but not leaving the company. Buccieri will be taking on the general manager task at the new Lynnfield branch over the summer, cutting his commute to about eight minutes, he says with a grin. “I’ll take the first week of July off, then hit the ground running,” he adds, noting that the same exacting standards, careful training, and attention to detail that are hallmarks of the group’s other restaurants will be ingrained in Lynnfield.

Patrick Glynn, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Wakefield and manager of the building that houses Davio’s Boston, is another local counting the days until the new restaurant opens. “I am excited for the whole complex, but especially for Davio’s,” Glynn says, noting that the restaurant’s outdoor cafe will be a welcome warm weather addition. “Outdoor dining is in short supply in our area,” he says.

Famous Friends

Glynn is not the only friend DiFillippo has in high places. The restaurateur’s engaging personality and easy charm, not to mention award-winning food, have made all of his outlets hot spots for celebrities. He counts Bruce Springsteen as a fan—in fact, the rocker once asked if DiFillippo’s staff could teach his personal chef to make Davio’s famous Philly Cheese Steak Spring Rolls. DiFillippo told him the recipe was copyrighted—after all, the tasty treats, along with a variety of other options, are sold in 3,000 stores in 40 states, including locally at places like Shaw’s and Crosby’s. However, DiFillippo admits, if The Boss really wanted the recipe, he could have it.

New-Jersey-based Springsteen may not be turning up at MarketStreet, but the Lynnfield spot is likely to attract its share of celebrities. Already, Billy Costa of KISS 108 FM and NECN’s “TV Diner” is looking forward to Davio’s arrival on the North Shore. “Lynnfield is actually my home town,” he says. “I think Steve is one of the most creative and passionate guys in this industry. He has proven himself in other cities and nationally and he is finally bringing Davio’s to Lynnfield!”

Kobe beef meatballs, Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse

Davio’s popular Kobe beef meatballs

People who have been to Davio’s other locations—and especially the one in Boston—will surely experience a sense of dejà vu.  The restaurant’s decor and layout will be almost identical in the new Lynnfield space, right down to the large pillars that dot the Boston restaurant.  An architectural necessity in the historic building on Boston’s Park Square, the columns will be mostly a design element in the new space.

Davio’s menu doesn’t stray far from location to location, either—in fact, people who have been frequenting the restaurant since the early days on Newbury Street will always find classics like lobster risotto, sauteed calamari, and tagliatelle bolognese. Those stalwarts are displayed in a box on the menu and the recipes are never altered.  “People would kill me if I took them off,” DiFillippo says. About 30 percent of the menu at each location is at the discretion of the chef, DiFillippo adds. “It can get really boring to be a chef always doing the same things,” he says. “I want them to love what they do.” So chefs are encouraged to use seasonal local specialties wherever possible.

Sampler of Spring Rolls, Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse

Sampler of Spring Rolls appetizer, served in the restaurant’s typical high style.

While DiFillippo acknowledges that Davio’s has a reputation for being an expensive restaurant, he hopes his diverse menu will draw people every day—not just for special occasions. “Sure, we sell a $46 steak, but we also have pizza and burgers,” he says.

They also sell Kobe beef meatballs, inspired by a coveted family recipe from DiFillippo’s grandmother and something that has been wildly popular ever since DiFillippo was convinced to put them on the menu. “We shouldn’t even be selling meatballs,” he says. “They are not Northern Italian.” Customers don’t care, though; 30 to 40 orders a night fly out of the kitchen.

The meatballs are sure to be a top seller in Lynnfield as well, especially with one VIP who, if the restaurant opens on schedule, will be celebrating his birthday there. DiFillippo’s father, Tony, turns 86 on August 21, the restaurant’s scheduled opening day, and no one will likely be happier when it opens. When DiFillippo told his father about the new restaurant, the elder DeFillippo said, “‘Stevie—he still calls me Stevie—I’m going to be so proud of you,’” DiFillippo recalls with a laugh. “I finally made it!”