Meatballs "A La Concetta"

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People who win lotteries generally fit into two groups. The boringly cautious type who vows to keep the same job and make no major changes except for longer vacations; and the dope who buys everything in sight and has a line of bill collectors at his door inside of a year. But seldom do you hear about winners like Maurizio Badolato, who turn their good fortune into harder work, longer hours and more stress. Last week I went to Boston to find out how this poor guy could get it so wrong.

Maurizio, who landed from Italy 25 years ago at the age of 15, found work as a Beantown busboy. Ten restaurants later, he was making a nice dollar as a waiter in the Italian North End. And then one night he gets off work with a few bucks in his pocket, along with the key chain his mother gave him, which says MIRACLES DO HAPPEN. He lights a smoke, buys a wad of lottery scratch tickets and hits one for a million bucks.

"My mother was singing," says Maurizio's sister LuLu. "And then she gets on the phone and calls the relatives in Italy." Speaking of Italy, the thought of going back home to Calabria and having Italian beach girls peel grapes for him held a certain appeal. "You could live very well there on that kind of money," says Maurizio, 40. Or he could have got his own place in Boston. Maurizio, a single guy, lives at his mother's house with his sister and two of his four brothers, old country style.

But Maurizio didn't want the beaches of southern Italy or the bachelor pad. He had always dreamed of buying his own eatery in the North End, even though restaurants are among the riskiest businesses around. And last April, that's exactly what the busboy turned millionaire did, hiring practically the entire family to come work the American Dream with him.

Ristorante Limoncello is on the Freedom Trail, no less, two doors from the house where Paul Revere lived. We might be under British rule today if Limoncello were open back then, because there was no way Paul Revere was getting up on that horse after Maurizio's veal parm and a bottle of Chianti.

So how has it all worked out? "A million dollars is nothing today," Maurizio says in a heavy accent. "Uncle Sam takes his, I took care of my family, I bought the restaurant. That's about it. I work 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week."

But cry not for Maurizio. The food at Ristorante Limoncello is sinfully good, and business ain't bad either. And not since the tired, the poor and the huddled masses began paddling ashore has any immigrant found more happiness in a seven-day workweek. "Maurizio bought his dream," says Cynthia DeMarco, a waitress at Caffe Graffiti, an espresso bar around the corner.

Maurizio comes out of his restaurant after the lunch rush, steps onto the Freedom Trail and spins around the corner to Graffiti for his espresso and a shot of Sambuca with the boys. Vincenzo is there, and Willie, and the old men who put on neckties and fedoras every time they leave the house. "He hasn't changed," says Willie. "He'll never change."

Not a chance. But a light follows Maurizio, and he does not know why. Curiosity, not greed, has brought him back to the little North End grocery store where he made his fortune. And twice he's hit again. Once for $20,000, another time for $10,000. Is it the MIRACLES key chain he still carries? Is it the work of Maurizio's patron saint? "St. Anthony is very big around here," he says.

Two weeks ago, I would have told you the most annoying cliche currently littering the language was this one: things happen for a reason. But it turns out they do. Next to my own mother, Grace Costanza Nuzzo Lopez, the best Italian cook in the world is Maurizio's mother Concetta. Two or three mornings a week, this 70-year-old nnna makes a batch of meatballs at home, and one of her brood shuttles them into the restaurant as if transporting gold bullion.

It's like the story of the fishes and loaves, when you think about it. Maurizio Badolato hit the lottery so his mother's meatballs could be shared with the world. Miracles do happen. I'm so sure of it now, I may even go back to church.