Saloon Songs (EXCERPTS)
From Toots Shor to Sirio Maccioni
(Originally Published in 1999 in
AirWAVES,’ Fordham University Press)
I have always found great wisdom in saloons. As a young man I first knew the beguiling haze of an evening in Bernard “Toots” Shor’s glorious establishment on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Toots had his “kids” back then. Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote were his favorites. But he also had a soft spot for an Irish radio time salesman from Westchester.
At the Toots Shor bar one could learn many valuable lessons about times you never lived. The drinks were strong and the talk was of DiMaggio, Hemingway, Mark Hellinger, Runyon, Bill Corum, Eddie Arcaro and Grantland Rice.
The conversation was vivid and dazzling. And on a good night you would encounter Howard Cosell, William Pierce Rogers, who had a day job as a secretary of state, Bob Considine, James A. Farley and his tall, attractive son Jim, Paul Screvane, Jimmy Breslin, Jock Whitney, Walter Thayer, Hugh Carey, Howard Samuels, James Brady, John Lindsay, Sonny Werblin, Jack Whittaker, Jack O’Brien, Jackie Gleason, Edward Bennett Williams and Ford Frick, who would stop in on his way home to Bronxville. Also the great Hearst sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. I idolized him. And everyone who ever had to approach a typewriter for a living has tried to copy him. One night Omar Bradley, a general of the armies, walked in with a circular cluster of five stars on the epaulets of his dress blues.
You would see the legendary John “Shipwreck” Kelly eating apple pie on a barstool while Toots ate kosher pickles washed down with diet coke. On one such occasion, Toots paid Ship Kelly an extravagant compliment by identifying the two toughest guys he ever met … the ones you want next to you if you’re “trapped in an alley!” Shipwreck Kelly “with his bare fists” … or Sinatra “with a broken beer bottle in his right hand.”
Other barroom philosophers included classy Bruce Snyder, an enduring and endearing presence at the invincible “21” Club. Bruce is keeper of the flame for “21” and guards the heritage and tradition of this grand old Lorelei of a saloon with a fierce devotion. He understands about generations and in-laws and always has a marvelous story to divert you when you are hurting or just plain exhausted.
And surely there are no more endearing souls than one encounters at Mario’s of Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy-Belmont section of the Bronx. No matter how fast your world is spinning out of control … the Migliuccis – Mama Rose and her son Joseph – will restore your balance and equilibrium. The ingredient dispensed along with their drinks and Neapolitan food is called Love. Here you will see Lee Iacocca, Mario Biaggi, Bill Fugazy, some Yankees and, maybe, Steinbrenner. Also a lot of Fordham professors and their students … plus a group of Westchester high rollers in Jaguars, BMW’s and Range Rovers.
But the greatest of all barroom poets is Sirio Maccioni. Now when I recently encountered Billy Cunningham, the Times’ brilliant lensman, on his favorite corner, 57th and Fifth, the great society photographer who is Manhattan’s pre-eminent chronicler of the rich, the famous and stylish, advised me against comparing Toots Shor and Sirio Maccioni or even putting them in the same breath. Cunningham is a beloved icon of New York … and it may be a far stretch … but I still believe a saloon is a saloon, no matter the trappings or neighborhood. Thus Sirio.
Sitting on a barstool with Maestro Sirio at the Le Cirque restaurant is a thrilling adventure. Maccioni is a wise man, provocative, charming and absolutely accurate in his marvelous commentary about life and people. Here then are some late-night pronouncements from the Magnificent Maccioni … who is America’s greatest restaurateur. And barkeep. They were flung out into an empty dining room … late at night … when all the swells had gone home. Here then, retrieved from my notebook, are mementos of delightful evenings spent with the greatest of all contemporary saloonkeepers …
The Gospel According to Sirio
“I think there should be a moment in life when you do what you want to do.”
“You should show that you respect people … but also show you can do without them.”
“I resent stupidity. One must have rules. I have rules. One must always be ‘correct’.”
“90% of the people are nice … too nice. If I would follow my instinct, I would be sued … I would open a restaurant for only attractive people … make that nice people.”
“Donald Trump is a very nice person. I call him and within one minute he calls me back. I don’t care about his problems with other people …”
“When you ask someone to build you a $3 million-dollar kitchen … they ask are you sure you need it. I never did all this to prove I am better than the other people in my business. We did it because it was something we had to do. We are working people. Physical work. Mental work. And not to be intrusive. That is what we are about.”
“If something happens to me … just say: ‘Sirio has said it all.’ One life is not enough to prove yourself.”
“I like women who are fun … who don’t try to save the world … and men who are ‘correct’.”
“There is an Italian saying: If you wake up in the morning and have no pain … you’re dead!”
“When anybody can criticize a king or a president … then they are not a king. Or a president.”
“In my short life, I have seen a fellow open a bottle of Dom Perignon when they killed Kennedy. Stupidity … just stupid.”
“They say I put pressure on my sons to achieve. But I would never force anybody to be great in life.”
“They ask me if I’m religious. Of course I am. But I hate people who only pray when they need something.”
“When I was maitre’d at the Colony … people didn’t understand why I gave Warren Avis and Yanna the best table. They’re attractive.”
“My wife Egidiana tells me when she came here she didn’t know anybody. The only thing that mattered is she wanted to be with me.”
“When I hear today that only 12 civilians were killed in the bombing in Iraq I got sick. I remember the bombs falling on us in my town. I have been under the bombs. My father, a civilian, died on his bicycle under the bombs. My grandfather saw it. He said let’s go to church. He had unlimited respect for authority and uniforms. When he saw a uniform of any kind, he would bend. 27% had the courage to say we should not bomb. The Moroccans and the English ‘liberated’ us. They only raped 1500. The Germans no one. They might shoot you!”
“My wife always says: If everybody takes care of their own little spot … everything would be O.K.”
“I’m always scared. But for me to be scared is a point of strength. I don’t believe in luck. If someone shoots you … you’re unlucky.”
“I tell my sons: Concentrate on the people. Don’t spend time talking to the coat check girl or the bartender. Don’t look outside on a day like this to see if it’s raining or snowing. I tell them to look inside. The time you spend talking to the coat check girl is wasted forever.”
“I’m reading a book Europa Vivente.” It means Europe is still alive. A Florentine wrote it … a Florentine with a German father. He is trying to show the stupidity of Democracy. The only problem with Mussolini is he was trying to please everybody. The greatness of Italy was in the Medici, the Borgias. They were assassins! But they alone created and encouraged Art. But they were against the Italians. You put two Italians together and they can destroy anything!”
“The Italians always seem to need a tyrant to become great.”
“The other night I was with the Cardinal at the Knights of Malta dinner. I did not wear my sword and certainly not the cape because I look like Dracula. I was the only one at my table who was not Irish. They sang Danny Boy. I said you are discriminating at this table. What about O, Solo Mio? I hate that song! I didn’t tell them that the first gift to me in America was given by Morton Downey. It was a record of Danny Boy.
“My sons lecture to me. You are in America, they say. You have to adjust. What is going to be with the next generation? There is no class, no style.”
“Clinton is not the exception. There are so many stupid men.”
“I am going to be one of the three voting judges of the Miss Universe Contest in Martinique the first week of May. Donald Trump asked me to take his place because he is so busy. He is also so smart. The first thing he did was ask my wife. She said it was very nice. It would be good for Sirio. And then she went off to Atlantic City with her Uncle Renato for the day and came home after midnight and woke me up to show me the 300 quarters she won!”
“I blame the basketball season on the players. My wife agrees. She went after Patrick Ewing at the restaurant. He is very nice, but she told him he was wrong and she will never to go another game. And she never will.”
“New York has been very good to us … the press … Donald Trump … Mayor Giuliani … everybody. I never did all this to say I’m better than the others. It’s something we had to do. We’re working people. There is no such thing to be an artist. We work … the thing happens. It is about having an understanding of what people want when they come to your restaurant.”
“When we fed the Pope there were 16 cardinals at the table. It was on 72nd Street at the Papal Nuncio’s house. The Pope is a good eater. He likes fish, he likes rice, he likes pasta. Archbishop Martino, a great, intelligent man, is the Pope’s ambassador and so he can only be intelligent, was the host. We
went, we cooked … with security from the United States, from Italy, from the Vatican. He is a good eater, the Holy Father. He ate risotto with porcini and he ate fish. My pastry chef Jacques Torres made a replica of the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Pope asked me if it was true we had a three month wait list for a reservation. I said, ‘Holy Father … why don’t you come tonight.’ The Pope laughed and said tonight he was not going to have such a good dinner. Since the Holy Father was talking about ‘reservations,’ I asked Archbishop Martino what about a ‘reservation’ up in Heaven. So the Archbishop asked the Holy Father … don’t you think it would be very nice to have a great restaurant in Heaven? And the Holy Father looked at me and Cardinal O’Connor and said: ‘Are we sure … are we sure we go up there?’ The Pope is amazing. He spoke to me in Italian, to my son in English, to the pastry chef in French and to my executive chef Sottha Kuhnn in Thai. Then the Holy Father asked me if I was a good Christian … or just another Italian who only gets religious when he gets sick? You know in Italy we think because we have the Pope … and it’s a local call, we sometimes get a little casual and complacent.”
“The philosophy of a restaurant is to make a place pleasant. Sometimes it is the people who create the problems. I think people should look correct. I’m not talking black tie. But in the middle of summer these people go out in a t-shirt that looks like they have come out of a shower … and then it is not right that they come to Le Cirque and want to sit next to a lady. New Yorkers are elegant people. We should teach the rest of the people. We should teach the world.”
“I don’t know why I have been chosen as one of the 30 most important men in New York. It is ridiculous. I just sell soup. I’m glad I’m well known in my country because everybody has to be what he is. You never talk bad about your country, your mother, your brother, your family. Here, I’m a guest. But in Italy I can have my say. Most of the political group there is a disgrace. A Communist could be good, but it’s bad when applied in the wrong way. Communism was bad in Eastern Europe, so why try it in Italy? Thank God the Italians are not with anybody. They’re against everybody!”
“They say I feed their egos as well as their stomach. But why do you buy a Versace suit instead of one that costs 60% less? It’s a question of ego. Why do you go to your hairdresser who knows you? It’s ego. It’s also quality of life.”
“Everybody should be equal when we start, when we are born. But then I don’t believe in egalitarian any more. Everybody should start and go up. I tell my three sons if one gets up at eight and one at 10 and one at 12 … the first one up should do better. It’s a simple philosophy.”
“People can’t eat caviar and foie gras all the time. Sometimes they need hamburger … vulgar food … the things we grew up with … pig feet, tripe, boiled beef, lamb chop cooked with potato – lamb stew – roast chicken. And especially me … I’m not easy to please in a restaurant. But I will go when they have those dishes. We invented pasta primavera. In 1975. We were invited by the Canadian government to try new recipes for pigeon, lobster and wild boar. But after three days, all this got boring. So it came my turn to cook. And I took everything I could find in the kitchen … all the vegetables … and we created pasta primavera.”
“I notice that man is looking at your wife … but don’t worry. He has had a lot of wine. But he is a gentleman and he is always correct. He has manners. But he can’t help himself from looking.”
“You’re a man and automatically you’re stupid. As a young boy in Italy I was crazy. I have always been stupid.”
Q: But your greatness, a part of it, is that you’re Italian.
A: Yes, but I’m alone!
More “Saloon Songs …”
ALEX & JULIAN
JULIAN NICCOLINI and his courtly, taciturn partner ALEX VON BIDDER have relinquished the iconic and timeless space which once housed the FOUR SEASONS restaurant in the Seagram Building. And all New York now hopefully awaits the Four Seasons’ new incarnation a few blocks south at 280 Park Avenue.
And speaking of “legends” in the culinary firmament: admirers and aficionados of the stately “21” rejoice in its recent rebirth and renewal. The ageless “Numbers” has been restored to its former glory by general manager TEDDY SURIC and all is once again quite right with the world at “21” … thanks to Suric, a brilliant young restaurateur who brings his own great respect for the traditions of the hallowed New York landmark to our beloved “21.”
PRIMOLA, a very agreeable place on the East Side, is presided over by GIULIANO ZULIANI, whose spectacular food and warm personality attracts A-listers night after night.
THE OUTER BOROUGH
I should also acknowledge that I’ve discovered quite late in life, a marvelous place in what locals call the “outer” borough of Queens. We’ve had a lot of really wonderful evenings in the care and keeping of TONY FEDERICI at PARKSIDE in Corona. Its interior and customers are right out of the mind of Scorsese or Mario Puzo. And Tony’s charisma and magic is always applauded and appreciated by a room full of good fellows, attractive ladies and assorted “Goodfellas.” You gotta love it … if ya know what I mean. It’s a favorite of GIANNI RUSSO, MATTHEW MARI, ABRAMO DeSPIRITO and RALPH CAMPAGNONE. Also yours truly.
HARRY CIPRIANI, in the stately old Sherry Netherland at Fifth and 59th, traces its lineage right back to ARRIGO CIPRIANI’s original HARRY’s BAR on the Venice waterfront near San Marco Square. The New York version is a magnet for society dames and an upscale Euro crowd. I go for late lunches or an occasional nightcap after black tie charity dinners. No matter the hour, maitre’d SERGIO VACCA, who moves around the dining room like a Nijinsky or a Nureyev, makes sure all is right with your world as he escorts you to the care and keeping of star waiter Fernando or primo barman LUCA. And occasionally you’re also greeted by Maestro Arrigo’s attractive grandsons MAGGIO and IGNAZIO. Cipriani is great fun at any hour and in any season.
At CIRCO, Le CIRQUE’s West Side sibling, you’ll be greeted and dazzled by BRUNO DUSSIN, the diminutive and graceful long-time compadre of the MACCIONI family. The Tuscan food and European service is as good as the Sicilian wines on offer. And the pasta primavera is even better than at the Mother Ship, but don’t tell SIRIO.
Le CIRQUE (today)
When you’re putting together an evening for a client or a “friend” and it’s just gotta be right, I still head for the mighty Le CIRQUE in the courtyard of the Bloomberg building off 58th Street between Lex and Third. The incomparable and ageless MARIO WAINER “Your Excellency … welcome back!” (Is he talking to me …? Yes, and what’s not to like!) still runs the dining room for SIRIO and his attractive sons MAURO and MARCO. And the legendary chef TOM VALENTI now presides in the kitchen as well. PRESIDENT TRUMP and billionaire RON PERELMAN are regulars. And so is ANDREA BOCELLLI and his wife VERONICA BERTI, friends of Sirio’s.