Restaurant Manby Joe Bastianich
How does a nice Italian boy from Queens turn his passion for food and wine into an empire?
In his winning memoir, Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich charts his culinary journey from working in his parents’ red-sauce joint to becoming one of the country’s most successful restaurateurs. Joe first learned the ropes from his father, Felice/i>/b>… See more details below
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How does a nice Italian boy from Queens turn his passion for food and wine into an empire?
In his winning memoir, Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich charts his culinary journey from working in his parents’ red-sauce joint to becoming one of the country’s most successful restaurateurs. Joe first learned the ropes from his father, Felice Bastianich, the ultrapragmatic, self-proclaimed “restaurant man.” After college and a year on Wall Street, Joe bought a one-way ticket to Italy and worked in restaurants and vineyards. Upon his return to New York, he partnered with his mother, Lidia, and soon joined forces with Mario Batali, establishing one superlative Italian restaurant after another.
Writing vividly in an authentic New York style that is equal parts rock ’n’ roll and hard-ass, bottom-line business reality, Joe explains: how Babbo changed the way people think of Italian restaurants; how Lupa and Esca were born of “hedonistic, boondoggle R&D trips” through Italy; and how Del Posto managed to overcome a menu that was so ambitious that at first it could not even be executed and became the first four-star Italian restaurant in America. He lays the smackdown on the wine industry, explaining that no bottle of wine costs more than five dollars to make.
Joe speaks frankly about friends and foes, but at the heart of the book is the mythical hero Restaurant Man, the old-school, bluecollar guy from Queens who once upon a time learned to sweat it out and make his money through hard work. Throughout he stays true to the real secret of his success—watching costs but being ferociously dedicated to exceeding the customer’s expectations on every level and delivering the best dining experience in the world.
— Anthony Bourdain
“In Restaurant Man…Joe Bastianich has served up a very smart insider’s take on the New York City culinary scene as only and erudite and successful member of the secret society can do. The subtext of this love letter to the memory of his father is in itself a magnificent stand-alone dissertation. Joe pulls no punches and tells it exactly like it is in a way that punctuates the many oddities with brilliant black humor and scene-of-the-crime, matter-of-fact perspective. Restaurant Man will resonate with anyone who has come in contact with the world of food, entertainment, and wine or the cottage industry of scripted reality television it has spawned.”
— Mario Batali
“[Restaurant Man is a] rambunctious memoir….Mr. Bastianich writes in a vigorous, swaggering style….a cross between Anthony Bourdain and Holden Caulfield.”
— Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal
“Enthralling…. Funny, often surprising, and if anything, illuminating.”
— The New York Observer
“A fascinating, brutally candid look at the realities of operating your own eatery.” — People
“Compulsory reading for anyone who dreams of someday opening an eatery….The lessons [Joe] Bastianich has to offer are important and fundamental.”
— Russ Parsons, LATimes.com
“[Restaurant Man is] a wild ride that ends with a richer, happier, healthier man amazed at his survival, emotionally reconciled with his past and committed to nurturing his family and his culinary legacy.”
— Wine Spectator
“[A] darkly humorous and gossipy memoir…[Joe Bastianich’s writing style] is reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential; Medium Raw) and covers some of the same territory.”
— Library Journal
“Joe Bastianich tells it like it is….Restaurant Man is a brutally honest account of his rise from self-proclaimed Queens “punk” to a James Beard-winning restaurateur….[Restaurant Man] serves as an education—and a warning—to anyone who is thinking of entering the restaurant business.”
— The New York Daily News
“[Restaurant Man] is a raw, throbbing nerve of a biography: if [Joe] Bastianich has any intellectual filters, he checks them at the door here, and Restaurant Man is the beter for it….This is the Some Girls of restaurant memoirs.”
“[Restaurant Man] is a combination of homage to food and wine, and tutelage on owning and managing restaurants….Restaurant Man serves as an education to anyone wanting to enter the restaurant business”
“[Restaurant Man is a] salty, rollicking memoir….[Joe Bastianich’s] forthrightness about the business nitty-gritty and his own failures and mistakes are bonus takeaways along the utterly readable way.”
— Publishers Weekly
“[Joe Bastianich’s] easygoing voice and substantial knowledge of real Italian food (not the spaghetti-and-meatballs kind) will lure booklovers and food lovers alike…. Engrossing details of being the front man in a variety of thriving restaurants.”
“Joe Bastianich paints a refreshingly honest picture of what it takes for a restaurant to not just create an impeccable dining experience, but also turn a decent profit…. An entertaining read, a blend of heartfelt family history, practical advice, and insider stories.”
“One thing is for certain, after reading this book you look at your next restaurant visit in a different light.”
— Palm Beach Daily News
“[Restaurant Man] is full of frank, personal revelations…but it’s also an eye-popping industry expose.”
“A fascinating look at the nuts and bolts of running successful restaurants…. Offering tantalizing and deeply personal behind the scenes [sic] information about pricing, menu development, wines, hiring and firing.”
“[Joe] Bastianich’s Restaurant Man rightfully sits alongside Anthony Bourdain’s seminal Kitchen Confidential, pulling readers into the complex inner workings of the restaurant industry…. It’s compulsively readable…. Unabashedly dishy.”
“An insight into the restaurant business that few offer in this way.... Read this book and you will never look at a restaurant the same way again. You will have a new and broader appreciation for what it takes to make the experience for you and what it costs to do it right…. Four stars.”
— The Opelika-Auburn News
“A fantastic memoir…. Brutally honest, and one of the best memoirs of its kind since Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.”
— The BookReport
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Penguin Group
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 2 MB
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Meet the Author
JOE BASTIANICH lives in Connecticut. He is an acclaimed restauranteur and judge on MasterChef alongside Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot.
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
Here’s everything you need to know to open a restaurant.
Your margins are three times your cost on everything. Some things you make more, some things you make less. You have loss leaders on the menu—veal chops and steak might cost you 50 percent of the ticket price on the menu. Pasta and salad you can run closer to 15, just as long as everything works out to 30 percent.
Bells and whistles like appetizers and desserts bring down the cost. Desserts are almost pure profit. Wine by the glass is usually marked up four times, although we don’t always do that. At Babbo we get about three times cost for a quartino, or sometimes even two times, so our wine cost is 30 to 50 percent.
Thirty percent of your monthly take is going to be your food and wine cost. Thirty percent is going to be labor, 20 percent is miscellaneous, including the rent, and 20 percent is your profit. Your rent per month should be your gross take on your slowest day.
And that’s it. Restaurant math is easy. If you need to gross ten grand in a day, then it’s about having two hundred people coming in and spending fifty bucks apiece. And within that $10,000, you should have $3,333 going to the cost of goods sold, $3,333 going to labor to execute that, and 20 percent miscellaneous, including the linens and insurance and bug spray and anything else. That leaves 20 percent profit. Like I said, it’s very simple. There are a lot of more complex models, but this is the basic way of doing it.
Anything you give away for free is bad. Linen is the number-one evil, because it is expensive and no one pays for it. Same with bread and butter. You don’t mind paying fifteen bucks for a veal chop you sell for thirty dollars, but paying a dollar and a quarter for a tablecloth and thirty-five cents for each napkin that someone gets dirty before they even have their first drink is a drag.
In a typical Manhattan fine-dining restaurant, between 10 and 20 percent profit is an acceptable margin. Twenty percent if you’re a stud, 10 percent if you’re just doing okay. But every little thing will eat into your margin. A spoon that goes into the garbage is coming out of your pocket. A pot of coffee no one drinks costs you money. How close the chef cuts the fish to the bone will make a big difference. In this business, to make money you have to save money.
My dad taught me that. He was a restaurant man. That’s what he called it: “Restaurant Man.”
He taught me at an early age the enigma of the business—you have to appear to be generous, but you have to be inherently a cheap fuck to make it work. He taught me how to make money—it’s a nickel-and-dime business, and you make dollars by accumulating nickels. If you try to make dollars by grabbing dollars, you’ll never survive. It comes down to a very simple concept that my partner, Mario Batali, and I live by in all of our restaurants: We buy things, we fix them up, and we sell them for a profit. That’s been our mantra since we started. We’re not full of ourselves. We can’t afford to be. This is a business that will always see more failure than success. We are very passionate about what we do. We live to pleasure our customers. We want to bring them to gastronomic orgasm, and we want to be there to bask in the afterglow. We’re the luckiest guys in the world to have this job. But really, what we do is very simple: We buy it, we fix it, we sell it for a profit. That’s the restaurant business.
At Babbo, our first truly celebrated restaurant, we had a low fixed cost—when we started, our rent was only about $12,000 a month, and we had 110 seats. We were lucky; a comparable location could easily have cost two or three times that. We figured we’d take in about forty or forty-five bucks a person and turn the place one and a half times a night—that’s 155 covers a night, which is $7,000 a night, about $50,000 a week. It’s a nice little $2.5- or $3-million-a-year operation. If we’re doing well, all told we make 20 percent, $600,000. But these days utilities cost more than rent. It’s crazy—you have to have extremely high revenues. You have to be busy all the time.
Most people who open restaurants will fail, because they lack the fundamental understanding of restaurant math. Either they think they’re superstar cooks or they think they’re superstar hosts. They do it for ego, and they don’t realize that without making money it’s nothing but bullshit. You are in the business of marketing, manufacturing, and customer service, all at once, every day. If you don’t break it down into these elements and take each one of them for what it’s worth, if you think you’re some sort of glorified dinner host or some artistic cook, you’re not going to last a week.
If you’re counting on your friends when opening a restaurant, you’re fucked. That is not how you build a business. This is another lesson my father taught me: He always preferred the unmuddied Customer–Restaurant Man relationship—you come here because I give you a product at a fair value and, hopefully, exceed your expectations. You’re happy to pay for it. I’m nice to you because I’m making money. You enjoy, you leave, you come back again. You say thank you, good night, and maybe I buy you a drink.
Friends feel entitled. They keep you away from what you should be doing with the customers who really matter, and you have to send them free shit. Friends fuck up your night—and your margin.
Walking into the restaurant every day, you’re basically looking for opportunities to make money. And how do you make money? By stopping money from going out the front door.
First thing is, your restaurant has to have a scale at the front door, because every meat purveyor and fishmonger knows whether you do or do not—they all have a checklist of their restaurants that don’t have scales. You weigh everything as it comes in, then check your invoices. Your chief porter is usually going to be doing that. In the case of most restaurants, he’s a dishwasher, but he’s evolved. He’s your boy. You watch out for him—if that guy is on the take, you’re totally screwed. He has got to be on your team, because he’s at the pulse. And you have to make sure he’s aggressive, not only weighing everything but making sure you’re not getting stabbed for ice weight, or water weight on fish, or box weight on meat. There are so many ways that you can get fucked. You’ve got fresh produce and dairy, and if it goes bad one second before you’re ready to sell it, that’s coming right out of your profits. You’re taking credits on the linen deliveries. You have to buy lightbulbs, toilet seats, stemware, flour, sponges, you name it, and if there’s a way to skim on it, someone is going to try. If the vendor thinks he’s going to be a wise guy, he gives your guy at the door an envelope, a couple hundred bucks in cash every week or every other week, and then your guy is going to sign for any kind of invoice. That’s classic. You have to make sure your man is as incorruptible as a parish priest.
The magical point of the restaurant, where you make money, is not at the table when the check comes. It’s at the door when you sign in that invoice, for whatever it is. Because when you get it and you’re signing it and it’s still on a double-ply receipt, if you mark a credit for dirty napkins or dirty tablecloths or weight on a fish, they’re going to take back your marked receipt and you’ve still got an angle. When you sign off and take your half of the ticket and now you only have your invoice left and later you find out you’ve been ripped off, the road to getting that money back is much longer. So that’s the real pressure point—when you still have the delivery guy there and your guy there and you can still mark that invoice and put up a stink if you have to—Fuck you, I’m not paying for this, fifty cents on the dollar for this—you still have leverage. Once you sign off on it, you’re done. People will try to cheat you all the time. It’s like Monty Python’s Life of Brian—if they didn’t try to cheat you and you didn’t try to haggle, everyone would be disappointed. It’s part of the game. Once you have a relationship with vendors, you hope you can trust them. But it’s definitely a crawl—they’ll nickel-and-dime you until nickels become dimes and dimes become quarters.
Then there are the people who actually want to steal from you. Sleazy waiters like to steal cash, but these days when everything is done on computers, it’s tough. It used to be that they could give a customer a fake check without running it through the register and then pocket the money off the books, but that’s very risky. If they’re in cahoots with the bartender or whoever is taking the cash, that’s a better way to steal. That requires two people cooperating, though, and a little honor among thieves. But at least that way they might have a chance.
I remember closing up one night, at Buonavia, my parents’ restaurant in Queens in the 1970s. I was about ten or eleven. My father would close the place himself every night, which was a real bitch. That’s a lot of long nights, hanging out, waiting for the drunks to finish, having a couple glasses of wine, flirting with the coat-check girl. It’s where good goes to bad. You’ve got to be supervigilant at a time when your instinct is to have a few and call it a night. Back then my job was to pull the gates down and put the padlocks on, usually around three in the morning, freezing my ass off. On this particular occasion, I looked over where the garbage was being picked up on the street, and the garbage bags were moving. It was like a horror movie, totally weird. We cut one open, and it was full of lobsters. It’s very simple to sneak food out with the garbage, then swing back later and pick it up to resell for easy money.
Then there are the people who aren’t actively stealing but are eating expensive product and wasting stuff. They’re wasteful because they don’t give a shit, and ultimately they’re fucking you. They don’t care if you lose money or make money.
There’s an old joke in the business: The restaurant owner has just hired a new bartender, and it’s his first night of service. The owner is up on the second floor looking down at the bartender, keeping an eye on the new guy. Some people come in and order two Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniel’s. It comes to thirty bucks, and the bartender puts fifteen in the drawer and fifteen in his pocket. The next guy orders a round and it’s forty bucks. Twenty in the drawer and the bartender puts twenty in his pocket. The boss is upstairs watching the whole thing. The next big order comes in. Shots all around, beers, a few cocktails, sixty-dollar tab. The bartender puts twenty in the drawer and forty in his pocket, and the boss loses his shit. He says, “Goddamn it, I thought we were partners!”
That’s the way it is—you’re just happy to know what people are stealing from you. After that it’s how much you’re willing to tolerate.
Being Restaurant Man means being there in the morning. It’s a drag—you closed late the night before, you were probably drinking too much and trying to lay the coat-check girl—but you have to shake it off and start all over again. You sip your espresso at the bar, maybe have a little Fernet-Branca to kill the hangover, and take a look at what happened the previous night. You survey the land. You check out what’s been coming in the door and what’s been going out. You look in the coat-check room, because that’s where people leave the good stuff. You always go behind the bar, because that’s kind of like the cockpit of the restaurant—that’s where the cash register is, and usually that’s where you can see the door. You check the bartender’s tip jar, because that’s where they leave the evidence—blow, money, theft, phone numbers. Whatever happened the night before, the story is going to be right there in the tip jar.
I go to the kitchen and pull open a couple of lowboys to make sure the inventory is being circulated. Restaurant Man is always following the product and following the money through the cycle—receiving, storage, processing, bulk processing, fine processing, application of heat. Customer comes, pays for it, leaves. The money goes in the register, you buy more shit. You have to be part cop, part paramedic—at every point in the process there are people who want to waste stuff, steal from you, make it less profitable, and ultimately throw it all in the garbage can, and your job is to keep it tidy. You have to be brutal to keep the margins from bleeding out. Ultimately, Restaurant Man’s job is to stop the people who want to fuck him from fucking him.
The other thing I like to do in the morning is check the reservation book. See what’s on for lunch, see what’s on the book for dinner, see who’s coming in, and start thinking about who sits where. The seating chart is very important. Is anyone famous or infamous coming in? And I don’t necessarily mean celebrities. I mean customers who are either real heavies, meaning real spenders, or complete douchebags. You want to know. Famous film director is coming in with a four top. Likes to be on Table One. Fat opera diva is coming in at eight-thirty. She needs extra space. Ex-president and do-gooding rock star coming in together. Don’t keep them waiting.
Just as a reality check, sometimes I’ll mark a couple of random bottles before I leave the restaurant at night. When I come back in the morning, I’ll check on the fill levels, see what the staff was drinking the night before. You need to know what the staff drinks, if they’re drinking Patrón or Grand Marnier—that stuff is not free. If they’re going to be drinking, you hope at least they’re drinking from the rail.
You would like to have a no-drink policy, but the people who work in restaurants…well, they drink. It used to not matter quite as much. We made a lot more money on the bar—liquor was cheaper, and customers would drink more. Now everything is superpremium, and it costs superpremium. Back then it was gin, vodka, Canadian whiskey. A big shot trying to show off might say, “Gimme a Cutty on the rocks.” You used to pay $7.00 for a bottle of Cutty, but even in 1978 you were getting $3.25 for that drink, so 50 percent of your bottle cost was in the glass. Not anymore. You sell someone a Grey Goose martini, even at wholesale, it’s $32.00 a bottle, something like $2.00 per ounce. These days what’s a pour? Three, three and a half ounces? All of a sudden, you’ve got $7.00 of vodka in the glass, and what are you going to charge? Eleven, twelve bucks? I hate those margins. It’s not like it used to be, buying the bottle for seven and selling the glass for three and a half. Now you’ve got to sell three or four drinks to get your money back on the bottle as opposed to two.
I’ll check out the bathrooms and the locker room, usually the most disgusting part of a restaurant. For me, restaurants are always about maintenance and cleanliness, about cleaning and upgrading, then upgrading some more. My father drilled this into my head from the time I was six years old. He used to say, “We don’t run this place like a fucking Chinese restaurant.” You know, down in Chinatown sometimes they treat the restaurants as if they lived there. Have you ever seen three space heaters with the cords all duct-taped together, plugged into one cheap extension cord, along with the TV, which the whole family is watching at a table? And the boom box and the Christmas lights are also plugged in there, and the place looks like a half-finished basement that somebody’s trying to make festive? It’s like building a nuclear power plant on a fault line.
Before lunch you set up the dining room. My dad used to chalk the tablecloths to save a few cents—he’d go through the tablecloths from the night before, and for the ones that weren’t so dirty he had a little piece of white chalk to chalk out the marinara stains and refold them and use them again. If one was too dirty to use as a topper, it could always get a second showing as an underliner. Linens are a sore point for Restaurant Man, because they’re one of the big expenses for which you don’t get anything back. My dad had a drawer behind the bar where he kept one napkin. He would use it for a week or two. The same napkin. No kidding, Restaurant Man hates linen. Bev naps—the square napkins you get from the liquor companies for free—are Restaurant Man’s secret artillery. When the staff is eating, I make them use the bev naps. I take them home and make my family use them at dinner. I clean the windshield of my truck with them.
After lunch is over, when the last table leaves, you clear it off but keep the same tablecloth. Maybe turn it over. Back in the day, the owner ate first, maybe with the coat-check girl if he was banging her. Or the bartender, or one of the head captains, or the manager. To sit at that table, you had to be made. Sometimes Restaurant Man would have the cook fix him something special, which is a real kick in the balls, to force someone to cook after lunch is over, but even then he was watching the cost. He wasn’t going to have a steak and a shrimp cocktail while everyone else ate veal scraps and spaghetti marinara, which was a typical family meal. This was Restaurant Man basking in his success but still living on the margins.
At Buonavia in the seventies, between lunch and dinner everyone would be either asleep or getting drunk. Here’s an image for you: There’d be three or four tables put together, with people lying on top wrapped in tablecloths, sleeping in their underwear, with their stinking feet dangling off the table in their black suspender socks. The rest were smoking cigarettes and reading the Racing Form, also in their underwear, or they’d be out at OTB, hopefully with their pants on, betting on the ponies. All the lights are off. The first thing we did when the lunch customers were done was turn the lights off. Restaurant Man hates the electricity bill almost as much as he hates linens.
Between lunch and dinner was when the drinkers would start to get a load on, and then they’d basically stay drunk throughout the night, stealing a glass of wine here or there. One of my jobs at Buonavia as a kid was to salt the wine—if I didn’t put two tablespoons of salt into every gallon of cooking wine, everyone in the kitchen would be completely shitfaced.
These days we have a formal family meal. We have a meeting, and it’s a little bit more legit. At four o’clock at Babbo, we set up the upstairs, put a couple of picnic tablecloths down on the tables, and bring up some trays of food. At Babbo there’s always a vegetarian option. Everyone sits down and eats together, and we have the waiter meeting. The manager comes up and addresses the staff, the wine guys come up, they pour a wine or two, they talk about the wine. The maître d’ does the roll call—who’s coming in, who’s famous, where are they going to sit, who’s who, what their deal is, what they need to get. Usually they’re regulars, so it’s pretty standard. Then the managers talk about the specials and anything else that needs to be addressed, and the kitchen will send in a couple plates of food. After the family meal, the chef will come up and talk a little more about the dishes.
Being a good waiter these days is all about communicating a lot of detail—the ingredients, the spirit of the dish, the expectation of it, why it’s relevant to the restaurant. Waiters are how you communicate with your public. They’re an essential part of the experience, the true bridge between Restaurant Man and the customer.
We have an arsenal of possibilities at our disposal, and it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to take that cache and custom-craft an experience that will match or exceed your expectations as a diner. Not every experience fits every diner, and it’s the waiters’ job to interpret the experience and match it to the diners’ needs and expectations. That’s a pretty high level of the game, but that’s how we play.
The battle is always between the front of the house and the kitchen. Luckily, I’m in business with Mario, who is 100 percent old-school Restaurant Man. He is famous for policing the garbage—if you throw it out, you can’t sell it. We’re two cheap fucks from way back. He’s a genius at being showy but not spendy. Show is free—baby carrots cost three times as much as big carrots, but if you carve big carrots down to look like baby carrots, it’s the same thing. You have to pay the guy shaving them, but it costs much less than buying the baby carrots.
You have to strike a perfect balance between being a cheap motherfucker while still being selfless when it comes to the quality of your customer’s experience, which is really our goal. But it’s very delicate, because if you favor either side, it can throw off the whole equation. Being able to ride the fine line between them is one of the most important skills a restaurateur can have. You have to make sure your parsimony is invisible. You have to appear loose to the point of being opulent—but really, when you’re giving from the front, all you’re doing is pulling from the back, and you have to be careful. You can’t win this game by giving stuff away.
Every time I put a price on a menu item, I think about it three times. And then I think about it at night when I should be sleeping. I think about the markup, I think about the margin, and then I think, regardless of margin, what is it really worth in terms of the experience? I think about it in both directions.
My personal rating system for restaurants isn’t really activated until I get my American Express bill at the end of every month. I go down the bill and see where I’ve eaten. Dinner at Da Silvano? Let’s see, that was six hundred dollars, and there were four of us. I think we drank some good wine, but was it worth six hundred dollars? Was it a transformative experience? I’m deciding a month later. If it passes that test, it’s a winner and I’m going back.
I think that people look at a menu and don’t squabble so much about whether the veal chop was thirty-two dollars or twenty-eight. But when they sign that check, when the coffee and sambuca are done and the tip is in and then they’re looking at it—a couple bucks for a dinner for two, or five hundred or a thousand dollars for a dinner for four—that’s the price of the experience, and I think that’s really what it’s about.
What fuels my mentality—from the perspective of being a Restaurant Man—is the all-in check average. “All-in” meaning average spent per person, including tax and tip. That’s your spend. That’s what it cost you for the experience. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and that’s how I look at my restaurants. I’m always thinking, Well, dinner at Del Posto these days is a hundred-and-eighty-dollar check average. Fucking A, if you’re spending a thousand bucks for four people, we had better give you some kind of experience. You could buy a 1978 Buick LeSabre for a thousand dollars and have a great time wrecking it. You always have a choice.
Actually, at Del Posto, lunch we pretty much give away. It’s the best deal in town—twenty-nine dollars for the fixed-price three-course lunch, no gimmicks. The duck breast is epic—and no supplement for that either. We fill the place—just fifty or sixty covers a day—but there’s no motivation to do more than that, because we don’t make any money on it. It creates goodwill and Internet chatter, a lot of people talk about it. But you’ve got twelve dollars of linen on that table. You have a dollar a head in bread, plus Italian butter and house-cured lard that takes two years to make. You haven’t even ordered and I’ve spent fifteen bucks and two years on you, and that doesn’t even include the fancy stemware, the lights, the sommelier who is going to take care of you like a doctor, a very large staff of top-shelf waiters, busboys who are like ninjas, not to mention a chef who’s got more stars than Hollywood Boulevard and a pastry guy who talentwise is somewhere between Wayne Gretzky and Pablo Picasso.
And you’re going to spend twenty-nine dollars for all this? Now, hopefully not everyone is a cheap fuck, and a twenty-nine-dollar prix fixe turns into a sixty-dollar lunch-check average. Still, this is not Restaurant Man’s preferred formula for success. Actually, the best thing to do at Del Posto is go on Friday afternoon, make a one-thirty reservation, and stay till six. You’ll drive everyone crazy, and they’ll hate your guts, but it’s basically like having an early dinner. You can have a couple bottles of wine and still get the full Del Posto experience without spending a Buick. Bring five friends, whoop it up all afternoon…Wait, I forgot to put the piano player on the bill. We have live piano music at Del Posto, even at lunch, and he’s a hundred sixty bucks a shift, divided by fifty covers, so that’s about three dollars a head in music. Guess maybe restaurant math isn’t all that easy. But when you can do it, it works, although it reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine from Animal Crackers:
GROUCHO: What do you fellows get an hour?
CHICO: For playing, we get ten dollars an hour.
GROUCHO: I see…. What do you get for not playing?
CHICO: Twelve dollars an hour.
GROUCHO: Well, clip me off a piece of that.
CHICO: Now, for rehearsing we make a special rate. That’s fifteen dollars an hour.
GROUCHO: That’s for rehearsing?
CHICO: That’s for rehearsing.
GROUCHO: And what do you get for not rehearsing?
CHICO: You couldn’t afford it. You see, if we don’t rehearse, we don’t play. And if we don’t play, that runs into money.
My parents opened their first restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, in 1970. Queens Boulevard is the magic road that goes from near JFK to midtown Manhattan, and more people get killed trying to cross it than any other street in the world. Forty years later it looks almost exactly the same.
The restaurant was called Buonavia, and it started as a typical seventies red-sauce joint, with velvet wallpaper and fake paintings of Venice and women with large breasts playing violins. The first incarnation was small, maybe thirty seats. My dad, Felice, ran things, both in the front of the house and in the kitchen. He made the deals, he bought the food, he hired and fired. For me he was the original Restaurant Man.
My mother, Lidia, never came on as a player when they started—she was the cashier, she worked the bar and kind of stayed in the background. She had a great interest in food and in cooking—she’d learned to cook from her grandmother in Italy, and we made these fantastic trips to Italy every summer that always involved seeking out great local specialties—but she really only evolved as a chef after the restaurant had opened. Later, of course, she would become quite famous.
The food at Buonavia was the typical Italian-American stuff of the day. We had a chef who had a mustache like Juan Valdez who could make piccatas, veal parmigiana, chicken scarpariello, hot antipasto, and, naturally, spaghetti with meatballs, but better than the competition’s. It was all very good.
The place instantly drew long lines. Forest Hills had a large population of Jewish folks who appreciated a good meal and a good deal. Many of these people were immigrants themselves, so their affinity for a hardworking young couple making delicious food is easy to understand.
Once in a while, Lidia would get in the kitchen and whip up dishes that were more ethnic and authentic to her. My parents came from a kind of unusual place in Italy, near the city of Trieste in the northeast, on the Adriatic, not far from Venice, at the top of the Istrian Peninsula, bordering what is now Slovenia and Croatia. Besides their Italian heritage, they had also been exposed to lots of Slavic and Austrian cuisine as well as some Hungarian and Jewish influences. That region had always been something of a cultural crossroads, what was sometimes called Mitteleuropa.
Lidia would braise some tripe or make gnocchi or a guazzetto sauce, and she began serving that to people. Polenta and risotto seem so common now, but in 1971 this was the first time people had ever tasted dishes like these in a restaurant. And there was a great clientele for it in the early seventies—everyone in Forest Hills had, or was, a Jewish grandmother. A lot of them came from Central and Eastern Europe and had a real sensibility for this kind of homemade European food and a real taste for what was authentic.
We made wine and vinegar and grew tomatoes in the back. My mother always reminds me of the time when I was three or four and cut all the flowers off the new tomato plants to give to my grandmother as a present, pretty much killing all the tomatoes from our garden for that year. She’s laughing now, but you can bet that there isn’t an Italian mom in the world who would have thought that was funny at the time. So it was a good dose of the Old World right there in Queens.
Eventually she took up the role of chef and my dad stayed in the front of the house. He was a hard-core Restaurant Man, a real blue-collar restaurateur. He woke up every morning and got into his truck and headed out to Hunts Point in the Bronx to the meat markets and downtown to the Fulton Fish Market. He’d buy the vegetables, buy the chickens, he knew how to save money on paper goods, you name it. We bought black-market cigarettes from the mob—my father would empty the cigarette machine in the restaurant and fill up canvas bags with the quarters, and he could tell just by lifting one exactly how much money he had collected. He’d just pick it up and tell you: “Thirty-seven fifty.” He never missed.
I was born in Astoria in 1968, and moved to Bayside, Queens, a few years later. But we didn’t go home after school—we’d go to the restaurant in Forest Hills. I had a little desk on some tomato boxes in the dry-storage room, and I’d sit there and do my homework. Sometimes I would take a nap on the flour bags and then go upstairs and have dinner.
I had my first job at eleven years old, washing dishes, and I loved it. Eventually I graduated to the dining room at night, seating people. After hours I dug into the banquettes to find coins, making a few bucks on the side. I liked hanging out with the cooks. They were these bad-ass motherfuckers, much cooler than me and my grade-school friends. They always had the best cars, with eight-track stereos. One guy drove an Eldorado. But that’s all they were—cooks. They didn’t have any fancy names. There was no sous-chef. There was a salad man. And a grill man. I was always friends with the salad man, since he was also in charge of desserts.
Forest Hills was a classic Queens neighborhood. Sam Heller owned the Knish Nosh across the street, next door there were Koreans who owned a stationery store, and there was a beauty salon, and a Sterling savings bank on the corner. Eventually Buonavia got so popular that we expanded, first taking over the stationery store, then the beauty parlor. We could seat 120 people, and there were still lines outside waiting to get in.
Ethnicity was very important when we were growing up. My father taught me that the Jews worked in the banks and the Italians worked in the restaurants and that the Irish were cops, and you never wanted a Jewish doctor, but you wanted a Jewish accountant and make sure you have an Italian lawyer. It was a simple view of things, but we lived in a diverse neighborhood of immigrants, and the first thing you knew about people was their religion and their ethnicity. Everyone got along, but this is what you used to size them up. I realized that there was us and the Jews and the Irish, and then there were the Puerto Ricans, who were somehow different from us. But I was hanging around with a pretty mixed crew—Angelo Sorrentino was Italian; the Grimaldis, Italian; Brain O’Flaherty, Irish; Paul Putski (known as the “Polish Hammer” for his ability to pound a six-pack of Bud in record time), Polack. Eric Vilando, Filipino. Havel Blapk, Czech. Nicky Vakovic…I don’t know what the fuck he was. Maybe Serbian.
My Jewish friends were more affluent. They belonged to pool clubs, they had the nicer cars. They lived in the nicer part of town. We were different. The kind of crew I ran with, we all went to Sacred Heart, a Catholic school. The Jewish kids were more society than we were; you got that feeling at a very young age. They were the shop boys—they hung out at the shopping center, what we used to call “the shop.” Sometimes we’d cross lines to play roller hockey together, but not really too much, not until later when we all discovered that we liked to smoke pot together. That was a great unifier.
And then there were other Italians. They weren’t Mafia, but definitely more well-to-do people. They had swimming pools and these Mock Tudor castles, and at some point you had to know that it was all about money. That’s what distinguishes how well people live.
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