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Camille Hunt, Ray Rogers and James Servin | Photo: Gregg Delman | April 29, 2014
Meet the head honchos of some of New York City’s most iconic restaurants—Fresco by Scotto, Bubby’s, Ceci Cela, The Cecil and Le Cirque—and learn the secrets behind how these world-class, awe-inspiring food destinations got that way.
The Scottos: The Family Affair
“From day one, we had a great lunch crowd here, but a very bad turnout for dinner,” recalls Anthony Scotto Jr., of his family’s 1993 entry into the Manhattan restaurant scene with Fresco by Scotto, a primo midtown Italian eatery whose fans range from the Clintons to the Steinbrenners. “For about two years we worked very hard convincing lunch customers to come back at night,” he adds. “Now we’re equally as busy at dinner—in this area, where no one lives.”
Business for Brooklyn natives Marion Scotto and her children—Anthony Jr., a restaurateur whose past successes include Bar One in L.A.; former fashion publicist Elaina; and Good Day New York co-host Rosanna—has been going strong for more than 20 years now, boosted by monthly appearances on the Today show, guest spots on Ellen, a bustling takeout business (Fresco by Scotto on the Go), and three cookbooks with titles like Scotto Sunday Suppers and Other Fabulous Feasts.
Key to the restaurant’s success are its unfussy and lighter-than-they-look dishes (like spaghetti alla Chitarra, with tomatoes and fresh basil) as well as top-shelf nationwide media exposure guided by three-time Emmy Award-winner Rosanna.
“I’d invite all my TV friends, like Regis Philbin,” says Rosanna. “We’d comp things because we wanted people to come here. The good news is that hard work pays off. Now we’re doing catering—Elaina oversees a lot of the backstage cooking at Yankee Stadium and at various concerts, through Live Nation and the Barclays Center, for acts like Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand.”
(Of Streisand, Elaina notes: “She likes to eat very simple. We had to cut the stems off the broccoli, and that’s what she’d have for a crudite.”)
As could be expected from a tribe of passionate Italians, many dishes on Fresco’s menu are inspired by family trips to the motherland. The marinara pizza—with whole-wheat flour and a touch of molasses in the crust—was discovered in Venice, as was the layered eggplant-zucchini pie.
What did they bring over from Brooklyn? “Our attitude!” says Anthony. –JS
Ron Silver: The Hometown Favorite
Bubby’s Ron Silver is a man with a mission: defending the American table.
What that means, explains Silver, founder and chef at the Tribeca institution and its recent High Line outpost, is “making sure there’s always room for somebody else.”
Jewish and a native New Yorker by birth, Silver grew up in Salt Lake City surrounded by lots of people with “blonde hair and blue eye shadow,” he says, making him a prime example of America’s cross-cultural melting pot.
And his menu reflects that diversity, from his beloved sourdough pancakes to the “white trash food” he grew up savoring, like sloppy joe sliders or his mom’s meatloaf.
“I’m driven by fond memories of the past,” says Silver, who named his restaurant after the Yiddish word for grandmother. “Bubby’s success is a combination of my having a foundation in something solid that I really believe in: American food, with all the ethnic and geographical variations that go with it. And then, doing everything we can to stay innovative and relevant.”
That’s included gradually taking Bubby’s off the commercial food grid. They now source locally as many ingredients as they can—look for specials featuring asparagus, ramps and strawberries this spring—and even make all their own sodas. For instance, if someone orders a Sprite, “we cut up a lemon and lime, muddle it and add syrup,” Silver says.
And it doesn’t get any more all-American than the soda fountain Silver is launching at the High Line location. The multitude of mouthwatering syrup and ice cream flavors on offer at the 1920s-inspired venture will, of course, all be homemade.
There’s a folksy feel to Bubby’s that’s kept customers loyal for 24 years at the Tribeca location, and continues to be a magnet for comfort-food-seeking diners in the midst of the velvet-rope boîtes surrounding the new High Line branch, which opened this past October.
“Bubby’s feels like home to a lot of people–including people who just walked in for the first time,” says Silver, 51. “I’ve heard of lots of children whose first word is ‘Bubby’s!’ I’ve known kids from the day they were born, then given them their first job at Bubby’s.”
That includes Silver’s own brood: The eldest of his four boys, 17-year-old Abraham, is serving up lattes at the High Line. –RR
Laurent Dupal: The Confectioner
Occupying a tiny sliver of a storefront on Spring Street near Lafayette, patisserie Ceci Cela, French for “this, that,” has made a major impact on Manhattan taste buds with its celebrated croissants. Bite into one and witness the phenomenon of a pastry seeming to “breathe,” its lung-like cavities filling with air and then springing back into perfect shape.
In both the basement of this Spring Street shop and in a 6,000-square-foot Williamsburg factory, 10,000-plus croissants are produced daily for Ceci Cela’s 400 delivery clients, including Dean & DeLuca (which sells the almond croissants), Sullivan Street Bakery and the The New York Hilton hotel. “That’s a lot of dough,” says Ceci Cela’s owner and pasty chef, Laurnet Dupal, seemingly unaware of the pastry pun.
A native of Nancy, France, who was raised in both the city and the countryside (where his parents still have a small solar- and wind-powered home), Dupal, 46, says he made apple tarts with his mother as a teenager to avoid studying. “The more apple tarts I was making, the less homework I was doing,” he recalls.
As a young adult, Dupal joined the prestigious Compagnons du Devoir du Tour de France, where he perfected his baking skills before coming to NYC and working as a pastry chef at The Odeon and Tribeca Grill. In 1992, he carved out his own niche in the city with the opening of Ceci Cela.
Dupal’s earnings, in those early days, were decent enough that he could afford to close shop and take the month of August off. “We were so French,” he says. “Who would do that in New York today?” Especially now, with Balthazar Bakery and Starbucks just blocks away, drawing potential customers. But Dupal sees neither as competition. “My coffee doesn’t taste the same as Starbucks’, and my croissant is totally different from Balthazar’s. We are making the same products, but do we have the same tastes? No.”
Flavor and texture are what Celi Cela does divinely. A pistachio madeleine, perfectly spongy, goes beyond simply being green and actually tastes like pistachio. A mocha latte is rich, smooth and deeply chocolatey.
Surrounded by his decadent creations, Dupal says that most mornings he’s content to skip the sweets and breakfast on an apple and a cup of Earl Grey tea. “I’m not in this business to eat pastry,” he says. “I’m in it to make people happy.”
And to make dough, of course. –JS
Alexander Smalls: The Gastronome-Explorer
When Zagat released its list of the “19 NYC Restaurant Power Players You Need to Know” last October, landing at stately No. 8 was Alexander Smalls, executive chef and co-owner of two recently opened eateries that had gourmands heading north to Harlem all winter: the Afro-Asian-American-inspired The Cecil and throwback jazz lounge Minton’s.
Smalls, a South Carolina native who grew up around good food and good music, is a familiar face to restaurant-savvy New Yorkers who remember his baritone—he’s a Grammy- and Tony-winning former opera singer—and his ’90s-era bistros Sweet Ophelia’s, The Shoebox Café and the acclaimed Flatiron spot Café Beulah. At Beulah, Smalls introduced “Southern Revival” cuisine—his take on Low Country fare—to celebrity friends and fans.
“I went from the opera to Café Beulah during the height of NYC’s cafe society,” says Smalls. “Catherine Deneuve would be at the bar. Gloria Steinem would be there. George Clooney came after he hosted SNL. It really was a special time.”
By 2002, when all three restaurants had shuttered, Smalls went on a journey to rediscover the food of the African diaspora, tasting the culinary influence that slavery had on flavor profiles around the globe. His travels to places like Africa, South America and China helped create The Cecil’s culinary concept, where today, dishes like oxtail dumplings with green curry root and cinnamon-scented fried guinea hen recall the tastes of a number of continents.
Minton’s, the upscale revival of the 1940s-era Minton’s Playhouse where Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday once scatted, serves a reincarnation of Café Beuleh’s Southern Revival cuisine. And although you may find fried chicken and collard greens on the menu, don’t dare call it “soul food.”
“I’m militant about people not calling my food ‘soul food,’” proclaims Smalls. “It lumps all black-owned restaurants together, and I want to break those stereotypes.” Indeed, Minton’s collards come stuffed in sweet potato ricotta dumplings, and the expertly cooked fried chicken is served with a lively green bean provencal.
Within weeks of his Harlem haunts opening their doors, foodies began to take note and critics were rejoicing the return of Alexander Smalls.
“Some people say I’m fearless, opening two restaurants within the same month,” he says. “But there were two ideas that had to come out at the same time. It was like giving birth to twins—you have no choice!”
But best of all, “my old friends are finding me here,” continues Smalls, who welcomed longtime friend Steinem and opera singer Jessye Norman at The Cecil recently. “I’ve moved [to Harlem], but my restaurants are like my living rooms, and everyone’s invited.” –CH
Sirio Maccioni: The Captain
This month, on the heels of Le Cirque’s 40th anniversary, its ringmaster, legendary restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, had the distinction of receiving the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
It’s an honor that’s “good if you don’t believe it,” cracks the dryly hilarious Maccioni. “I believe in a few things: I believe in my wife. I’d like to elevate all the restaurants in the world to her level of cooking—that would be great food.” In fact, no chef has ever been granted a job in the famed eateries’ kitchens without matriarch Egidiana’s nod of approval, notes son Marco, who helps oversee operations for the family franchise that includes six restaurants in NYC and Las Vegas.
“I spent my life trying to understand what food is all about,” he says. “In the end, there’s only one thing: good food or bad food. It’s the same everywhere, in every country. New York has good food. Le Cirque has very good food.”
The key to that very good food? “Simplicity,” he says, having just made a dent in a plate of fresh honeydew melon cut into bite-size chunks, as if to illustrate his point.
In its three local incarnations, Le Cirque has been the culinary stomping ground for the world’s boldface names for four decades now. It was a hit from the start, when unexpected droves of customers—including stars like legendary actor Douglas Fairbanks—lined up around the block and were asked to fetch their own plates from the kitchen.
Once a favorite of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, today Le Cirque gets a different kind of artist. Jay Z and Beyoncé were regulars when they resided in the Bloomberg Building, where the restaurant is housed on East 58th Street, a few blocks east of the original 65th Street location inside the Mayfair Hotel.
The key to Le Cirque’s staying power lies in the man behind the business, who shows up daily, even at age 82. “You have to listen to your customers, and I respect them,” says Maccioni, setting forth one of his driving principles about trusting his own instincts. “But then you have to be able to judge what to forget!” –RR