Bruce Bozzi Jr
Photo courtesy of the Brooks Group

Evolution of the Palm Man: Bruce Bozzi Jr.

What could possibly be manlier than steak and potatoes? Try steak and potatoes at the iconic Palm Restaurant, where ballplayers rub shoulders with lobbyists rubbing shoulders with politicians. After 41 years, DC’s ultimate power restaurant has ‘still got it,’ in large part due to the detail-oriented Bruce Bozzi Jr., the executive vice president and official representative of the two families that still own the landmark.

Bozzi – who was described by BFF Andy Cohen (yes, of Bravo fame) as having “blue eyes like diamond jacuzzis” (he took a shot at an acting career in LA once) – represents the modern Palm of the 2010s. His drink of choice in the summer is a margarita on the rocks, no salt (classic, yet modern). But as a fourth-generation member of one of the two founding families, he also represents its colorful legacy.

The Palm started out in 1926 as a New York spaghetti joint owned by the Bozzi and Ganzi familes, all northern Italian immigrants, where newspaper reporters and cartoonists could hang out (hence the caricatures that famously paper the walls of all Palm restaurants) – and get a stiff drink during Prohibition. By the 1970s, it had evolved into a steak house and become a favorite with politicians and Turtle Bay diplomats, including the future President George H.W. Bush, who insisted that the family open a second restaurant in DC, where he would soon be based. They listened, and it opened on 19th Street NW in 1972, quickly morphing into what 60 Minuteswould dub, “the fourth center of power in Washington.” By the late 1970s, they had brought giant lobsters to the capital, Woodward and Bernstein sat in the back working on their takedown of Nixon, and Tommy Jacomo, the restaurant’s famed general manager, was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover DEA agent (he was acquitted).

But we don’t talk up those things up anymore. While Bozzi is fun, articulate and stylish, the part that he really represents is the continuity, and the commitment of the Bozzi-Ganzi families to the brand, its customers and its people. “It’s a huge responsibility,” he notes. “There’s no big corporate guy to take care of things – it’s a family matter at the end of the day, and it can be stressful. It’s a family commitment to pay the salaries that pay the bills for hundreds of other families.”

But that network of commitments and relationships is what Bozzi thrives on, and while the Palm is in his blood, he’s been a company man pretty much from the age of 19. While he did sidetrack into an acting career in Los Angeles landing a few parts in various television commercials, Bozzi returned to the Palm for good in 1994. The most challenging job the family has thrown at him was four years as regional director overseeing nine restaurants in very different cities. “It was difficult because of the travel piece – since you’re really a psychologist: you’re trying to support different teams, and there are a multitude of issues that come up in a people business. How do you keep your people happy? This is a critically important question, because when they’re happy, the customers are happy.”   Not being in one place, Bozzi couldn’t sink his teeth in – and, “what I love about the restaurant business is the relationships – with the customers, obviously, but also the people I work with. Being regional director was tough for my personality, but it was necessary – it gave me the bigger picture.” It also allowed him to learn to run the company. By the time he moved up to vice president and began overseeing the company’s redesign, he had a solid vision for returning to the company’s roots – and pushing back the “corporatization” that had started to creep up on the brand. “The DC restaurant became very important for us, since it’s in our backyard,” Bozzi noted. “It was a place where we rolled things out and tested them – some things never made it beyond this city! And veteran staff members were there to take on the challenge. Just changing the plates alone altered how the staff carried them out of the kitchen, for example.” We did say detail-oriented, right?

The brand redesign that Bozzi drove spanned the menu, lighting, table settings, uniforms, signage and social media.  The revamp introduced a lighter, more personal feel without sacrificing the hardy, masculine sense of wood, leather and meat.  Also, the menu now has things like sugared donuts (which also have universal appeal), and goat cheese whipped potatoes.

“We have a responsibility to keep moving forward – without changing it too much,” was Bozzi’s formula. “With the Palm, it’s a consistent product, but the people define each restaurant. In DC, the Palm has earned a special place largely due to the work of Tommy Jacomo [formerly GM, currently executive director] and general manager Michael Melore.” (With so many people, there are a lot of stories – hint hint, Bruce: there might be a book in your future!)

So who is the “Palm Man” in 2013? “He’s built a life on relationships; at his core, that’s who the Palm Man is. Besides the food and booze, which is great, the Palm becomes a place where you can celebrate relationships – it’s noisy, it’s fun – and the Palm Man values the balance of work and play, family and friendship.” He might also have blue eyes like diamond jacuzzis.

The Palm Restaurant: 1225 19th St. NW, DC; 202-293-9091; www.thepalm.com