The operation and success of Needham restaurant blue on highland is a true family affair. Owner Scott Drago, his wife, three kids and his parents are all involved. But it’s his 83-year-old mother, Barbara, who is the genius behind the restaurant’s now famous coconut cake.
“My mother used to make this cake every year at Easter,” said Drago. “It was a family recipe. One Easter we were all gathered at her house and I said, ‘Maybe you should make this for the restaurant.’ Fast forward, we’re at about 16 cakes a week.”
Drago calls Barbara a true Italian grandma who’s the glue of the family, and food is one of the ways she shows her love. But she is also humble. “I’m just a homemaker who loves to cook and bake,” she said. She and her husband drive from Melrose to blue when the cake supply is low and she bakes on site. Each cake takes about an hour, and Barbara makes up to four a day. Drago believes the work keeps his mother young.
Barbara’s skills are not limited to cake. She said her best dish is her pasta with meatballs and gravy. And she’s also known for her homemade manicotti. She keeps all her recipes in a file cabinet upstairs so when the time comes, her family will have the keys to her success.
Of course blue on highland serves more than cake. Drago has been in the restaurant business for years, learning everything from how to make brick oven pizza to serving craft beer. He worked for the original owners of blue. Now as COO and operating partner, he works with co-owners, Needham residents Corey Peyser and Adam Patti, to keep blue top of mind for foodies in the Metro West area.
Having been profiled on WCVB’s “Chronicle,” Barbara has become a bit of a celebrity. Asked if she might open her own restaurant some day, she laughed and said, “Maybe, and I can provide a little competition for my son.” In the short term, though, she is happy to keep the coconut cakes coming to blue. She said she also makes a “very very good” chocolate cake, and we might see that on the menu someday.
I tried to coax the cake recipe out of Barbara, but there’s no way she’s giving it to me or anybody … even her son or the restaurant’s chef. She did offer some special ingredients that make the cake so moist. The icing on the cake (no pun intended) is light with subtle bits of coconut. The coconut cake has been such a huge hit that the restaurant serves 50-75 slices each week.