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At Le Cirque with: Sirio Maccioni

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-30

Sirio Maccioni is in training.

That's partly because his celebrated restaurant, Le Cirque, will have a formal reincarnation today. That's also because he's had to host a whirl of receptions these past few days to herald the opening. And that's also because, at the same time he's been preparing for the inauguration, Mr. Maccioni must keep an eye on his other three restaurants in Manhattan, Las Vegas and Mexico.

But most of all, Mr. Maccioni is in training because, as in the movie, every night is the "Big Night" in the restaurant industry for him. Stamina counts.

"In my business, you never stop working," he said. "You must meet people every day of the week, you must greet them properly - you must make them feel at home, and feel welcome in your restaurant. As you can imagine, that can be tiring. So I need to feel good. That's why I work out."

Twice a week that workout is undertaken under the supervision of a trainer in the gym of the East 53rd Street apartment building where Mr. Maccioni lives. A third workout is done solo.

"I spent the first 35 years of my life as a skinny guy who tried hard to put on weight - I used to feel uncomfortable at the beach, that's how thin I was," Mr. Maccioni said.

"And these next 35 years - these have been the years when I've been trying to shed weight," he said. "I'm 74 years old. I like to feel good about myself. That's one reason why I eat mostly vegetables now."

His fitness was among numerous topics that Mr. Maccioni brought forth in a trademark rapid-fire conversation at his restaurant at One Beacon Court on East 58th Street. In the background, workmen were finishing the bar. Mr. Maccioni's assistant, Michele Connors, was handling a constant stream of phone calls and visitors, alternating in English, French, Italian and Spanish. Tables were being carefully laid out for - what else - yet another pre-opening reception, with Mr. Maccioni occasionally offering directives.

A sense of urgency and anticipation fed the ambient temperature. But Mr. Maccioni appeared relaxed and freshly bathed. He had just been to his gym.

He talked about the restaurant industry, of course, and about his contention that notwithstanding several top flight eateries already flourishing in New York, a revived Le Cirque would enhance the industry.

"The city needs Le Cirque again. We want to maintain our traditional strengths and customers - but also want to encourage young people especially," Mr. Maccioni said. "I believe that for me - and for good business - it is important to attract good people. I try to understand what the public wants."

He talked about the vast pleasures of Epicureanism.

"I feel that young people in this country need to travel more and see what foods the world has to offer," Mr. Maccioni said. "You can only learn about life if you see the world for yourself."

He talked about the treasures of a kitchen that can draw not only from various regions of his native Italy but also from the kitchen of his grandmother Annunciata Lucarelli, who raised him in the Tuscany town of Montecatini Terme after he was orphaned at eight.

"I knew all about herbs by the age of nine," Mr. Maccioni said. "I learned early how to be resourceful. In the restaurant business, you have to measure yourself by the possibilities. You are not building an atomic bomb here - you're selling soup. The question is, what kind of soup?"

And Mr. Maccioni talked about his feelings for America and Italy.

"I like America - no, I love America - but I still consider myself a stranger in this country," he said. "I came to New York on January 3, 1954 - I remember the date well - so of course I am a New Yorker. But I feel that everybody - the people who come from other countries - should remain what they are in their hearts. We must respect the rules of the country in which we live. But we should maintain who we are - our cultural identity."

"I have always said to Italians in this country, 'Never deny who you are,'" Mr. Maccioni said. "I try to teach Italians here where they came from."

That sense of retaining one's roots is an article of faith for him. As a young man he worked in Paris and Hamburg - learning French and German in the process - where, initially, being Italian wasn't necessarily an asset.

"But I worked hard," Mr. Maccioni said. "Then one day, someone high up in a hotel said, 'He's Italian, but he's very good.' The fact that my work was recognized pleased me a lot. I could even overlook the dig at my citizenship."

In time, Mr. Maccioni would become an American citizen - in August, 1958 - but he and his wife Egidiana, an acclaimed singer, always emphasized to their sons Mario, Marco and Mauro the importance of never losing their Italian connection. (All three sons are in business with their father.)

"We deliberately spoke Italian at home while raising our sons. And we encouraged them to learn French, German and Spanish," Mr. Maccioni said. "One son even learned Russian. In today's world, knowing several languages is an asset for young people."

His own repertoire of languages enables Mr. Maccioni to greet customers with special phrases and a warmth that comes from knowing the idiom.

In Mr. Maccioni's view, restaurateurs also need to know what he called the "language of proper service."

"When I hear a staff member asking a customer, 'Is everything all right?' I later tell that person, 'That's wrong. What you need to say is, Can I do anything for you?'" Mr. Maccioni said. "That opens up everything."

When Le Cirque - which means circus in French, but also suggests the art of having a good time - opens today for business, Mr. Maccioni will be manning the podium at the entrance, greetings guests in his effusive, expansive manner.

But in his mind, he said, he will hold a special thought.

"Whenever good things happen, I think of my grandmother," Mr. Maccioni said. "I wish she could be here now. But perhaps she's somewhere seeing me - and I hope she's blessing what I do."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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