Maestro Sirio: the Ringmaster

Maestro Sirio:  the Ringmaster


On Thursday, glamour and style return to the New York dining scene. The great Sirio Maccioni, America’s quintessential restaurateur, returns to center stage with the third incarnation of his legendary Le Cirque, a New York institution.


It is springtime, 2006.  Sirio Maccioni is 73.  He may yet do something in Paris or Dubai.   But even he knows this will be one of his last high wire acts in the center ring of the great city where he has been a featured performer for so long.  He begins this week on East 58th Street. 


The relentless clock reminds us it is 2006, and we are all mortal.  But for at least this one special night, in Sirio’s honor, I hope Joe DiMaggio roams centerfield once more at Yankee Stadium.  Frank Sinatra should be on stage at Carnegie Hall crooning a Cole Porter song.  William S. Paley again heads the Tiffany network where the cufflinks are just a little smaller and more discrete than those of NBC and ABC.  


It requires a time when the sportswriter Jimmy Cannon wrote pure poetry in a lonely room near Times Square.  Mario Cuomo is  standing on a flatbed truck in the garment center screaming at elderly Jewish women hanging out the window.  Ossie Davis is speaking pure truth to an audience at a church in Harlem. Gay Talese is coming down Lexington Avenue with his fine clothes and a very good cigar. Robert Merrill is singing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium for George M. Steinbrenner III.  And Kitty Carlisle Hart is at Feinstein’s every night. 


I know, I know, it is now 2006.  But Sirio Maccioni, with roots in the glory days of our town, is still in the game.  He is to his profession what each of these spectacular luminaries were to their own.   All of them – and Sirio – are not merely among the gifted and elite.  They are simply the best and have earned the right to the majestic Latin appellation “sui generis.”  It means unique and able to be defined only in its own terms.  Sirio belongs to that exclusive, rarefied fraternity.


I know I can’t turn back the tick-tock of the stately clock to the days when he started in this town, but for just this one night, opening night, let all politicians everywhere look like John Lindsay, walk into a room like Nelson Rockefeller, carry themselves like Jacob Javits, and think and speak like Mario Cuomo.


I know we are living, as Jimmy Breslin reminds us, in a “between you and I” age.  And all these magnificent and dazzling personages have been replaced by media creations such as Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith.


But this is still a tough, unforgiving town, and Sirio will have to impress Frank Bruni of the Times, Steve Cuozzo of the Post, Adam Platt of New York magazine, Bob Lape of Crain’s, Gail Greene and John Mariani.  But his legion of admirers pray the music from the new joint will last for a good, long time.  Even his competitors, who were stunned when the Italian was honored by the French government a few years back, hope he makes it.  It will be the greatest score for the gifted, graceful Tuscan impresario who walks with kings and prime ministers but still remembers the Germans sweeping through his town and breaking down his grandfather’s door.


There is something quite special about the man.  It was to Sirio’s table the magnificent Mayor Rudy repaired in the desperate days following 9/11.  An exhausted Giuliani would drop by late at night and have supper in the kitchen with the dust and soot and the horrible stench of vaporized death on his clothes.  The two sons of Montecatini would talk over a bowl of pasta late into the night, and Giuliani would then go home to catch a few hours of sleep before rallying the indomitable spirit of a city where Sirio Maccioni is the greatest restaurateur.   Then.  And now. 


The Italians have a word it for it:  “Convivio,” which means you tarry over food and wine to talk about life, love, politics and everything else.  But mostly it’s about a celebration of life.  And that, too, is Sirio:  Convivio!


The graceful Tuscan knows he exists alone in a changing profession now run by lawyers, speculators, bookkeepers and accountants.  To be sure, there are other restaurants of standing and reputation in our town.   Many are temples to culinary greatness and the fussy skill of the chef, some with international reputations.  But nobody is having any fun at their serious tables.  I prefer to pay homage and do my praying in a church, not in restaurants.  There’s no magic, no music in these gastronomic cathedrals and absolutely, to be sure, no one is having any fun on their hard, slick banquettes.


There are a few exceptions to the formulaic, programmed and predictable venues of ambition and greed in the restaurant business. Gerardo Bruno, an authentic dining room dazzler, weaves his magic nightly at San Pietro.  And David Burke can be exhilarating.  It is a “downtown” place, uptown, and the manager Teddy is terrific.  The glorious “21” still has a lot of lineage and cache if you can score a table with Milan, Joseph or Oreste. The estimable Four Seasons, run by zany Julian Niccolini and sedate, serene Alex Von Bidder, still makes each visit special. But when the great Sirio beckons from the center ring in the great city, even these accommodating joints must yield to his considerable genius.


There are many other highly successful eateries where all is programmed and computerized.  Some entrepreneurial business types own 10 or more venues.  These humorless souls like Danny Meyer talk of “synergy” and “return on investment” and charge outrageous markups on water and wine.  Some even bill for bread and butter.  Sirio, however, is all about people enjoying themselves, having fun during an evening away from the pressures of a world spinning out of control.  He is happy just to provide a stage for our courting rites.  To others, the whole thing is a business.  To Sirio, a profession.  And he is the most sensitive, generous man in the field where glamour and style still carry the day.


In upstate New York, at the Cornell University Hotel School, where they teach hospitality and management for spas, restaurants and resorts, they don’t teach Sirio’s methods, because what he brings to a restaurant cannot be taught in a classroom by even the most gifted of instructors.  It is called “intuition” and a generosity of spirit.  It can’t be taught.  They teach Danny Meyer, Drews Nieporent, Steve Hansen, Alan Stillman and Nick Valenti.  But the smartest graduates always head straight for Sirio’s employ.  And it is the same way with the best and brightest from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park.  He is the Winston Churchill of his profession. 


At other restaurants, you encounter three Debbies, two Jennifers, one Chad, a Lance, a Tiffany and “Hi guys!  So what do you folks feel like for dinner tonight?”  At Le Cirque you are greeted by the graceful, attractive proprietor and his savvy deputies, Mario Wainer and Benito Sevarin.  And if you are lucky enough to dine with a good looking woman like Nancy Curry O’Shaughnessy, on the way out Sirio will whisper to her,  “Why don’t you come for lunch tomorrow – without him?”


And when he opens this Thursday to the applause of 2,000 of his admirers, he will be attended by Egidiana Palmieri, the talented and earthy beauty who gave up a singing career many years ago to cast her lot with a dashing Tuscan on a fast Vespa from the hill town of Montecatini.  Egi and Sirio Maccioni will bask in the spotlight with their three sons:  Mario, Marco and Mauro.  And so will Stella Sofia Maccioni who is not yet nine months but has made the Times’ society page twice and Liz Smith four times!  


Adam Tihany, another certifiable genius, and Costas Kondylis, the charismatic architect, have created a spectacular new venue with a circus theme, with monkeys and elephants suspended Calder-like from the ceilings, to complement Maccioni’s genius.  Together with Sirio, they have spent millions of dollars, and several years off the life of Steven Roth, the head of Vornado, one of the smartest and most successful developers in New York.   But he never saw anything like the Tuscan showman.


But they did it.  And Liz Smith, Cindy Adams, Judith and Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Silvio Berlusconi, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Bill Cosby, Tony Bennett, Barbara Taylor Bradford and her husband Bob, Steve Forbes, Matilda and Mario Cuomo, and Archbishop Edward Egan will be there to herald his return.


New York becomes New York again when Sirio steps forward, once more into the spotlight, greeting people, loving them and being loved in return, at his LeCirque. An icon is properly restored.   He has been a class act in every season of his life.  And in every season of our lives. Sirio Maccioni is a marvelous New York story.  It’s 2006.  But he’s still here.  In the center ring.  


(original broadcast, May 15, 2006)