Sirio Maccioni has lived his life on the periphery of celebrity photographs. As maitre d' and owner of Le Cirque, the New York restaurant where Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger reconciled, Frank Sinatra parked his limo and the "ladies who lunch" lunched, he has served for three decades as something of a mealtime matador to high society.
His memoir might have been a shallow name-dropper, full of chat about the Kennedy clan and insights into caviar. But that's the last thing "Sirio" is. Indeed, from the first chapter's anecdote of Ronald Reagan tossing off an ethnic joke, the book signals that it's no gladhanding salute to famous people or monied swells. There is barely another mention of a bold-face name for some 60 pages, but the reader won't mind.
This is an immigrant's story. In its opening chapters, it keenly evokes a time and place: Italy during the war. "My father was a very good father," the restaurateur writes. "In those days, there was no bad father." In rural Montecatini, first occupied by Germans and then Americans, the author is desperately poor and loses his mother early to pneumonia. What could be bathetic is instead spare and unflinching: He writes of hating the pity of the villagers and of his impatience, at the age of 10, at their empty assurances that his father will recover after a German mortar attack. ("There was no medicine, and no blood," he writes, dismissing the platitudes.)
With little to eat, Mr. Maccioni knowingly transforms himself into the stock character of war movies: the adorable Italian orphan boy begging for candy from servicemen. "We worked for those chocolates," he notes. He also pays attention as his war-torn city recovers swiftly after the war by marketing itself as a spa for café society. It was a lesson not lost on the young teenager, who was soon making his way in an old-fashioned world of restaurant service, where waiters were timed on how fast they could debone a chicken and the same staff worked breakfast through dinner, taking their breaks in between and sleeping together in a single room.
Pity the poor tourists in Germany who told the young waiter that, if he were ever in Paris, they had a job for him in their restaurant. He showed up with little French and no money and refused to leave, then traded up to the Plaza-Athenée when he was more fluent. He was still a "skinny, stupid spaghetti boy," he writes, desperate not to return to Montecatini until he could look down on all the people who, he says, had looked down on him.
As he moved to different hotels, restaurants and continents, he was careful to let the jet-setting clientele spot him (greeting the Onassis clan, for example, in a variety of venues). By midway through the book, Mr. Maccioni is in New York, having deserted his post on a posh cruise ship. He nabs a waiter's job at the prestigious Colony, gets a promotion and then the maitre d's tales begin.
He tells of the time both agent Swifty Lazar and publisher John Fairchild demanded the same corner table. Mr. Maccioni favored Lazar and was mortified when he found the two were meeting for lunch together. He tells of the pretty women who ate free for decades at Le Cirque, of the politics of sitting Canadian premier Pierre Trudeau nowhere near his wife, and of the betrayal and departure of his best chef, Daniel Boulud.
Mr. Maccioni is at his most interesting when he tackles the delicate issue of class, of being "a servant, but never servile." It is true that, by his own good fortune and entrepreneurial panache, he joined an elite of sorts by starting his own restaurant and making it thrive. But the book seethes with a class tension that will sting true for everyone who has ever worked among the well-to-do. Repeatedly Mr. Maccioni, maestro to the monied, warns of mistaking client friendships for real ones. He came to know Frank Sinatra, for instance, first at the Colony and then at Le Cirque, going around with him after hours to rival restaurants. But Mr. Maccioni always insisted on calling him "Mr. Sinatra," never "Frank," as the singer wanted. Mr. Maccioni was, he understood, ever the protégé.
Much, but not all, of this tale comes in the author's own voice, in the form of transcribed interviews done by his co-author, Bloomberg radio restaurant critic Peter Elliot. Elsewhere Mr. Elliot inserts background summaries and, occasionally, blocks of quotations from others, ranging from Rudy Giuliani to Bill Blass. Recipes are at the end of chapters. The baked eggs are excellent, but it's a jarring construction.
By the end of the book, the tale of the Italian boy who learned cooking in France, served on a German cruise ship and vacationed in pre-Castro Cuba turns out to be an American story. It closes with Le Cirque's expansion to Las Vegas and the controversial relocation of its New York branch from a cozy site on East 65th Street to a noisy space in midtown, garish and circus-themed. The two moves, while good for business, did not keep Le Cirque on the culinary map.
Indeed, Mr. Maccioni may be a fine chronicler of his time, but he doesn't want to admit that his time may be passing. At recent Le Cirque parties, the paparazzi were snapping Arlene Dahl and Joan Collins, not the bright stars and starlets who once packed its bar stools. Mr. Maccioni, who is brutally honest about what it took him to get to the top—including romancing some of his more powerful guests—needs to be more honest about the difficult fight to stay there.
He has recently announced that Le Cirque will move back to Manhattan's Upper East Side. Perhaps this last reinvention will return the restaurant to its grandest days. If not, this book is a fine snapshot of them, and of much more. (The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2004)
"...autobiography of the inventive gastronome who did much to insert Italian cooking into the world of haute cuisines in New York...a kind of oral history more integrated than the usual as-told-to-approach." (The New York, July 18, 2004)
Possibly, one day, there will be another restaurant in New York City (or London, for that matter or Rome or even Paris) that packs as much glitter, social striving and jet-set cachet under one roof as Le Cirque in its prime, although one tends to doubt it. The former Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, collected his mail at the restaurant, and Roy Cohn dined there so often that the kitchen famously gave him his own private jar of mayonnaise. On any given night between, say, the first Reagan inauguration and the end of the Giuliani era, the rooms at Le Cirque—and its Ornate successor, Le Cirque 2000—were so saturated with assorted dignitaries, social luminaries and Wall Street fat cats that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, could identify his patrons not just by their dining habits but by the number of bodyguards in their entourage. "Reagan himself had only two," Sirio writes in his engaging new memoir. "Niarchos used to have more than that! And Marcos came with 8 and Somoza with 12!"
What the corpulent ex-dictator of Nicaragua actually ate isn't recorded here, and it doesn't really matter. Maccioni, who grew up on a farm in Tuscany and worked as a young waiter in some of the great hotels of Europe, is a practiced and inventive gastronome. He was the first restaurateur to introduce simple Italian cooking into the stodgy, Francocentrlc world of haute cuisine. We can all thank Le Cirque for the omnipresence of crème brûlée, and many great chefs (Daniel Boulud and David Bouley. to name just two) have passed through its kitchen. But Maccioni divined, from an early age, that the restaurant business in New York is less about food than about entertainment. In a city hooked on status and power, celebrities are the ultimate entertainment. While celebrities enjoy a good meal (Ronald Perelman prefers his flounder "burnt to perfection," according to Boulud), what they like...