DANVERS — A question about his death caught Steve DiFillippo by surprise.

DiFillippo, the sociable and talkative owner and CEO of Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse, said he gets asked a lot of questions, but never on that topic.

"Could you die happy today or is there something you haven't done personally and professionally that would help fill that gap," asked John Dudley, who works in development for YMCA of the North Shore. 

DiFillippo sighed.

"First of all, I hope I don't die today, you know," he said, mentioning his father had recently died.

As he spoke, DiFillippo fiddled with the ring on his finger. It had belonged to his father.

"I would say, I'm OK. I think I'm good," then he added: "You know why it would be sad, because I think I have so much more to do. You know. I really do. I'm 58. I know it seems like I've done a lot, but I know this seems crazy. I say this a lot. I feel like I'm just getting started, you know. I really do. And, you know, I'm going to run out of time not out of money, you know. And that's sad," he said, talking about how he runs every day and watches what he eats. "Because I want to keep doing this."

DiFillippo, who grew up in Lynnfield and lives in Wenham, took questions Thursday during the luncheon for the North Shore Business Expo of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.

The hands-on restaurateur took over Davio's when he was just 24, when the restaurant was on Newbury Street. He has since transformed it into a successful restaurant group.

A member of the Massachusetts Restaurant Hall of Fame, DiFillippo now owns Davio's 10 locations, including in Boston, Lynnfield, Foxborough, Chestnut Hill and Braintree. He is also a radio spokesman for a weight-loss program.

In April, DiFillippo wound up in the news when the $4.6 million home he co-owned at 33 Two Penny Lane in Gloucester burned down. 

"It's a real tragedy and we are still trying to rebuild it. Hopefully we start this summer," he said. "They are still investigating it. We still don't know. It was really bad."

When asked about whether there is going to be a Davio's in Salem someday, he said: "Well, Salem and Lynnfield is kind of close, don't you think?" 

DiFillippo said he and his wife, Pamela, often eat out in Salem, and he likes the explosion of Salem's food scene. 

Beverly's food scene is expanding, too, he said. His friend, Frank McClelland, who owned and operated L’Espalier in Boston for 30 years before closing it in December, plans to open a restaurant on Rantoul Street.

"It's amazing because being on the North Shore, a lot of times you used to have to go into Boston, but we don't have to do that anymore, right?" DeFillippo said. 

On business, food

DiFillippo fielded other questions from the audience. Rob Lutts, a Salem resident and president of Cabot Wealth Management, asked him his ideas on "how you keep the best people in your company?"

"First of all, you've got to make money," DiFillippo said. "You've got to know your costs, right?" Those include costs for food, labor and rent.

"You've got to have a good deal. You have got to pay your people. Money is important, right? But, besides money, it's about respect," he said.

He has employees fill out a personality survey that asks them to list the five most important things to them.

"And one of (the questions) is pay," he said. "And, you know, most people don't even put pay in there as their top five things. It's really about having a say. It's about being respected, you know."

North Shore Elder Services Executive Director Paul Lanzikos asked DiFillippo about his favorite dishes.

"It's just such an easy question for me, because it's my mom's meatballs," DiFillippo said, about the first dish his 91-year-old mom taught him  to make. Earlier, DiFillippo said his restaurant stays away from Italian-American dishes such as veal parmigiana. For the first 25 years, he said, Davio's did not serve meatballs.

But about 10 years ago, DiFillippo said meatballs became all the rage, and he decided to create a fresh version of the dish using his mom's original recipe. It's one of the dishes of which he is most proud.

"Don't be afraid to go against some things sometimes," said DiFillippo, who added he was not afraid to change with the times.

At the end of the talk, DiFillippo went up to Dudley, the person who asked him about his death, and autographed a copy of his book, "It's All About the Guest."

"So maybe if you read this, you might be a little bit more happier," DiFillippo quipped.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.