BEVERLY — Marty Bloom has opened more than 30 restaurants in his career, so many that he's lost count. He's best known as the founder of the Vinny Testa's Italian Restaurant chain, which he sold for $18.5 million in cash in 2001.

But when Bloom first looked at the possibility of building a restaurant on the Beverly waterfront, he admitted it might be too much of a challenge even for him. The city-owned site has been occupied by a closed McDonald's restaurant for 25 years, and previous proposals to build there have succumbed to a death spiral of local and state regulations.

"I was having a beer at the Anchor (the pub across the street) one night trying to drown my sorrows," he said, laughing. "I said, 'This is a big-ass project.'

"But I'm not afraid of a big-ass project," he added. "I said, 'Let's see what we can figure out.'"

Bloom eventually decided to go ahead with the project. Last month he signed a 40-year lease with the city to build a three-story restaurant at a cost of about $4 million. The city sweetened the deal by offering more than $300,000 in tax breaks over the first five years of the lease, as well as lower rent payments in the early years.

When the City Council met to approve the lease with Bloom, Mayor Mike Cahill told councilors, "We've been seeking this type of high-quality team and high-quality proposal for a long time."

Bloom, 61, grew up working in his father's restaurant in West Yarmouth. He worked in the kitchen, as a bartender, and even helped balance the books at the age of 10, he said.

He went to Brandeis University with the goal of becoming a doctor, but changed his mind after three weeks of pre-med classes.

"I came out of Brockton High top of my class, I got to Brandeis and I was bottom of the class, fast," he said. "It didn't take long to realize I should probably go figure out something else to do."

Finding his niche

After graduating from Brandeis, Bloom ran his father's restaurant for the summer and found out he was good at it. He opened his first restaurant at the age of 23, down the street his father's restaurant in West Yarmouth, and named it Bloom's Prime Rib House.

"It was the last time I ever named a restaurant after myself," he said. "If you're not there, people get (mad). They expect you to be there no matter what time of day or night."

He eventually opened eight or nine restaurants on the Cape, including one, Champions Sports Bar in Hyannis, with Boston Celtics star Larry Bird and sports agent Bob Woolf as partners.

In 1993, Bloom left the Cape and opened the first Vinny Testa's in Brookline. The restaurant had been open for a couple of months and was doing well when one day, his partner tapped him on the shoulder and told him to look outside, he said.

"I look around and there's a giant line all the way down the block," Bloom said. "We were right next to Stanetsky's Funeral Home in Brookline, and I said, 'Wow, that's gotta be a big funeral.' He goes, 'No, no. They're waiting for us to open.' That was the day all of a sudden it hit me like a cement truck. It just took off like a rocket from there."

Bloom opened two more Vinny Testa's, in Newton and Natick, within a year. The chain eventually grew to 11 restaurants in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, including one at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers.

Bloom said he was ready to keep expanding the chain when he got "the Godfather offer." A competing family-style Italian restaurant company paid $18.5 million for the chain, according public records. Bloom said it amounted to closer than $25 million when all was said and done.

"That was kind of a magical moment," he said.

Timing is right

Bloom has since opened restaurants in Newburyport (Mission Oak Grill) and Swampscott (Mission on the Bay), and is a partner in two Mexican restaurants in Boston.

Wellington Augusto, who worked for Bloom as a chef at Vinny Testa's and is now his business partner, said Bloom has the instincts of a "great entrepreneur" and understands the restaurant business.

"I think it's in his blood," he said. "He grew up with that with his dad. I don't think he had any other choice." 

Bloom feels like he's coming to Beverly at the right time. He said the city is earning a reputation as a place to be, with new apartment buildings going up on Rantoul Street and new businesses opening, including a restaurant by well-known former L'Espalier chef Frank McClelland.

"This is a very hot town you guys got up here," Bloom said. 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.