Sirio Maccioni is America’s greatest restaurateur. This piece was done on the 25th Anniversary of LeCirque 2000…
He came with his slim hips and impeccable manners from Montecatini, the spa town in the hills of Tuscany. His name was Sirio and above the village where he grew up was the most splendid of all the spas, famed throughout Europe along with Marienbad and Baden-Baden, and frequented since the 18th century by the grand and leisured.
His father was a farmer. And, many years later, moving through the brocaded dining rooms of America’s greatest restaurants, they would say Sirio Maccioni looks like a courtly Italian version of John Wayne. But in those days, some 50 years ago, the young man on the fast Vespa resembled an Etruscan noble as played by Tyrone Power. He observed the rich and titled as they came to take the baths and taste the waters in his hill town and his first job was running the lift in the Hotel Grand La Pace.
The graceful, young Italian with the fierce eyes and restless spirit also charmed a beautiful neighbor girl – Egidiana Palmieri – of somewhat more substantial means and considerable talent in her own right. Miss Palmieri, already known as far away as Florence and Roma for her winsome looks and spectacular voice, was promptly advised by her well-founded family to pursue a promising singing career and forget the dashing Maccioni fellow…despite his cordial manners and “correct” bearing.
But strong-willed, patient Egidiana had other ideas. And so did Sirio who proceeded to work his way to America as a dancer on cruise ships with stopovers in Germany and France. He also assisted in the dining salon and in the ships’ galley. After the shortest apprenticeship on record, the gifted Tuscan became a captain and, just as quickly, a maitre’d in some of New York’s greatest restaurants: Delmonico, The Colony and The Café Pierre.
Egi Palmieri soon joined the rising young star of the restaurant world, rejecting an incredible $25 thousand dollar signing bonus to tour Italy singing operatic favorites, love songs and ballads. Her songs would now be sung only for Sirio. They married and soon followed a Mario, a Marco and a Mauro, who would all follow their father into the restaurant and hospitality business. To support his growing family Sirio struggled and sacrificed to open his own restaurant on the corner of 65th Street and Park Avenue. The sign on the door said: Le Cirque.
That was 25 years ago in New York City, one tough, unforgiving town (“If you can make it there…”). Since then many fabled eating and drinking establishments have up and disappeared: The Stork Club, The Colony, The Copa, The Latin Quarter, Delmonico, Romeo Salta, Mike Manuche, Jimmy Weston’s and the incomparable Toots Shor, a most glorious place. Le Cirque not only survived, it prospered…becoming the most celebrated dining venue in America. The restaurant with the French name was a perfect stage for its dazzling Italian proprietor from the hill town in Tuscany.
The French restaurateurs never did learn his magic and to this day they think it is about food. But Sirio, the beguiling showman who moved like a dancer, gave his patrons other enticements: glamour, style, romance and, always…fun. There are thousands of restaurants abroad in the land, most of them French (and even some pretentious ones with Italian names). But…nobody…is having any fun…at their serious tables. Even kings, prime ministers, dictators, presidents and popes like to have fun on occasion. And so they come to Le Cirque of an evening to be with Sirio, to be fed by him and waited on and cared for by Le Cirque’s host and ringmaster. He is now the quintessential restaurateur in the American nation and, perhaps, the world.
The New York Times, Forbes and Wine Spectator each bestowed 4 stars, making Le Cirque, I suppose, a 12-star restaurant! But it came time to move. And so, two years ago, the Maccioni Family transported their genius 15 blocks south, right into the heart of mid-town Manhattan, to the historic Villard House, now part of the New York Palace Hotel. Famed designer Adam Tihany, unable to violate the stately ceilings and walls, designed a “traveling circus” in the Palace Hotel…a “palace” fit for a Sirio. The sign now said: Le Cirque 2000.
It has become the hottest ticket in the hardest town. And so, next Monday evening in The Big Apple, Sirio Maccioni will celebrate Le Cirque’s 25 spectacular years by having a few thousand of his best, “most correct” friends for cocktails in the courtyard of the stately Villard House.
You may expect the King of Spain, the Mayor of Rome, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York (who merely has to walk out the front door of his residence and stroll across Madison Avenue), Nancy Reagan, Rudy Giuliani (another proud son of Montecatini), some people named Churchill, Uzielli, Cuomo, Trump, Ricci, Zanella, Astor, Rockefeller, Kissinger, Liz Smith, Cindy Adams, Zeckendorf, Lillian Vernon, Don Rickles, Molly O’Neil and her brother, the baseball player, Sulzberger, the publisher, Bernard Kruger, the brilliant society physician, Ruth Reichl, who now “understands” about Sirio, John Mariani, Bill Cunningham, the Times’ legendary lensman, Toni Suzette, the flower lady, Paolo Biscioni who runs the best hotel in Rome, James Brady, Frank DiGiacomo, Ronald Perelman, Bruce Snyder of “21”, Bob Lape, Susan and Jack Rudin, the Brudners, Woody Allen, Nancy Curry, Teddy Forstmann, Lee Iacocca, Sirio’s faithful managing director Benito Sevarin and their maitre’d Mario Wainer. Also Warren Alpert who owns a little real estate (actually, an entire block!) on Park Avenue. As Mr. Alpert dines, usually solo, at Le Cirque every evening he might pause in the courtyard for just one cocktail on the way to supper at his regular table. There will also be any number of archbishops, ambassadors and Patrick Walsh, a world-famous surgeon from Baltimore who will receive an especially warm greeting from Sirio. They will come – all of them – to celebrate an endearing and enduring American institution with a French name, run by an Italian. Their presence will also reflect their affection for the child of Montecatini who became the most famous and respected restaurateur in the world.
You don’t have to take my word for all this. Or even the encomiums heaped on Mr. Maccioni by the public press. Rather you might want to consult those who presume to compete against the Italian. Greatness in any form almost always arouses envy. But even Sirio’s competitors will affirm his genius and confirm his standing and reputation. Bryan McGuire, who heads the invincible “21”, says, simply, “Sirio is the best there is. He deserves his success. He is the most generous man in the business.” And Julian Niccolini of The Four Seasons (himself a charismatic dining room dazzler) will swear, “There’s never been anyone quite like Sirio move through a room!” Lello Arpaia of Bellini will tell any and all who will listen, “in all my years in New York…there’s only one Sirio.”
Listeners to these radio stations are advised that Maestro Maccioni will soon be moving through a few more dining rooms with his slim hips and easy style. He opens in Las Vegas at The Bellagio on October 15th and the restaurant world is abuzz that London and Paris are next. And maybe even Japan. So you can now just go and read all about the 25th Anniversary Cocktail Party in Neal Travis’ New York Post column on Tuesday next.
Of only this I’m sure: Sirio’s sons will be there with their father for the celebration. Egidiana Palmieri will be home babysitting for the grandchildren. After which she’ll probably sing again…just…for…Sirio.
Happy Anniversary, Maestro! Per cento anni!
September 10, 1998