Five Somerville celebrities from the White House to the big screen and across the restaurant scene – Cambridge Day

by | Feb 25, 2024 | News | 0 comments
Local celebrities? Cambridge is too easy, with its Matt and Bens, Supreme Court justices and all the folks who’ve been through Harvard from Rashida Jones to Tommy Lee Jones. Somerville has celebrities of its own, though, folks who were born here, raised here or chose to live here for a while and have made their mark nationally and even globally, sometimes for the best of reasons and sometimes for the silliest. From the president of the United States to the founder of a New England restaurant chain, here are five celebrities from The ’Ville.
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Barack Obama in Hawaii on Sept. 1, 2016. (Photo: Anthony Quintano via Flickr)
Years before taking residence in the White House, the 44th president of the United States lived in Somerville. From 1988 to 1991 while studying at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama lived in the Winter Hill area in Langmaid Terrace, a historic apartment building. According to the post, Obama racked up a lot of parking tickets. “Of course, he paid them all before assuming the presidency and still treated us rather well over the next eight years,” according to a Facebook post from the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission.

Obama lived in Somerville “because you got more apartment for your money. He went a little further away from Harvard because it was what he could afford,’’ landlord Jay Holmes told a kids’ field trip in 2012, boston.com said. (Obama always paid his $950 monthly rent, Holmes assured the kids.)
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Sarma Melngailis on a podcast in May. (Image: Lex Fridman via YouTube)
After owning a famous vegan Manhattan restaurant, being arrested and spending time in prison, and having a Netflix docuseries tell her story, Sarma Melngailis landed in Somerville for around five years, leaving in early 2023, according to Allen Salkin in New York Magazine. (She was raised in Newton and came back to Boston to work at Bain Capital for a time, Paper magazine said.)
Melngailis owned and operated Pure Food and Wine starting in 2004. She and her husband and business partner, Anthony Strangis, were arrested in Tennessee in 2016 and accused of “draining” the restaurant of around $2 million, along with duping investors, not paying employees and going on the lam, according to a 2016 Vanity Fair article.
Melngailis was under the control of Strangis, who “promised immortality” for the hundreds of thousands of dollars, leading them to commit the crimes they were arrested for. Both eventually pleaded guilty to grand larceny, tax fraud and conspiring to defraud. In 2022, Netflix released a four-episode docuseries about the couple called “Bad Vegan.”
She left Somerville and began living in New York City again in February 2023 to reopen the restaurant with former investor Jeffrey Chodorow, a process to be filmed by Mark Emms of “Bad Vegan,” New York reports – but so far there has nothing to show for it.
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Bobby Pickett performing “Monster Mash” on “American Bandstand” on Oct. 13, 1964.
You know the iconic “Monster Mash” song that comes around every Halloween? The artist behind it, Bobby Pickett, is from Somerville – born here in 1938. It was 24 years later, in 1962, that his novelty song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (just before Halloween). “Monster Mash” has continued to make the Billboard Hot 100 many times since (around Halloween), Billboard noted in 2018.
The song was “propelled” by Pickett’s impression of Boris Karloff, the British actor who played Frankenstein’s monster, according to a New York Times obituary from 2007, when Pickett died at age 69. The impression was apparently inspired by the horror films 9-year-old Pickett watched at the Somerville movie theater managed by his father.
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lex Rocco at the Governor’s Ball after the Emmy Awards presented Sept. 16, 1990. (Photo: Alan Light via Flickr)
Alex Rocco, most known for acting in “The Godfather” and “The Wedding Planner” but with more than 170 movie and television performances from 1965 to 2017, was born in Cambridge in 1936 and raised in Somerville.
Before his acting days, he was arrested and charged with multiple crimes reflecting the city’s rough-and-tumble past. In 1959 it was registering bets, then with participating in a brawl in a Somerville diner – for which he served jail time, The Boston Globe said in 2015. In 1961, he was accused in the murder of local crime figure Bernard McLaughlin when a bystander pointed to Rocco as being the getaway driver. Rocco was not indicted.
His first acting job was in “Motorpsycho!” by schlockmeister Russ Meyer. Rocco died in 2015 at age 79 – so prolific that two movies appeared posthumously.
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The original Bertucci’s on Elm Street in Somerville in 1982 seen in footage from WGBH. (Image: WGBH via Twitter)
Bertucci’s, the Italian chain restaurant with locations in New England and down the East Coast, began in Somerville in 1981, founded by Joseph “Joey” Crugnale – inspired after visiting his grandmother’s home in Italy, according to the Bertucci’s website. (A story the company doesn’t publicize: That Crugnale supposedly opened the restaurant to stop the business he bought four years earlier, Steve’s Ice Cream, from facing competition on the same block.)
Crugnale opened the first Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizzeria at 197 Elm St. in Davis Square – now a Revival coffee shop where it’s doubtful any patrons know they could once go into the basement to play bocce. The second opened in Cambridge in 1985 in a space that is now Felipe’s Taqueria at 21 Brattle St., Harvard Square. There’s still a Medford Bertucci’s, but the the company has been owned since 2018 by a Florida company.
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