Bourdain Mentor and ‘Dark Prince of Italian Fine Dining’ Pino Luongo Tells All
Pino Luongo admits that many young chefs have no idea who he is, though they may recognize him as Anthony Bourdain’s foul-mouthed boss in Kitchen Confidential. But Bourdain, in his introduction to the restaurateur’s forthcoming memoir, Dirty Dishes, spares no praise in calling Luongo “the Dark Prince of Italian fine dining, a man loved and hated with equal fervor by the wide swath of New Yorkers left in his wake” — not to mention a restaurateur who was “instrumental in creating the template for what we now take for granted as acceptable Italian food in New York City.” Dirty Dishes is, in part, Luongo’s attempt to go down in history for introducing Tuscan cuisine and authentic pasta to the city’s fine-dining scene.
Luongo broke into the profession during the “quiet before the big bang,” before the rise of celebrity chefs and during a time when Da Silvano (where he started as an immigrant bus boy) was perhaps the most authentic Italian restaurant in town. Helped by co-writer Andrew Friedman, Luongo describes his old boss, Silvano Marchetto, as eccentric and arrogant, and his speech as being like “Popeye’s, crossed with an Italian accent, throw in a bit of slurring, turn the speed up to about twice as fast as most people speak.” But Luongo hit it off with the fellow Toscano, and as he rose in the ranks, the two spent their days wolfing heroic amounts of cognac, Champagne, and truffles — starting at breakfast time.
After the inevitable falling out (Luongo didn’t want to babysit Silvano’s high-maintenance parents), Luongo opened Il Cantinori (strangely, he mentions nothing about Silvano’s feud with Giovanni “Bastardo” Tognozzi). The restaurant went relatively unnoticed until an anonymous regular who resembled Alfred Hitchcock (and turned out to be the great James Beard) brought in Times reviewer Marion Burros. Soon it was a celebrity hub of its own, and so were the restaurants he went on to open in dizzying succession — Sapore di Mare, Le Madri, Il Toscanaccio, Mad.61, and Coco Pazzo, the midtowner that, according to Luongo, “out–Le Cirqued Le Cirque” with its star power.
During this time, the critics were kind to Luongo, but he’s not so kind to them in this book. As if in response to Cuozzo’s recent gag order, he writes:
What’s wrong with criticizing the critics? If they have the right to assess — in public — how I do my job, why can’t I offer an opinion on how they do theirs? These people have had their asses kissed for so long by restaurateurs, chefs, and publicists that when somebody has the balls to disagree with them to their face, they take it as an affront. But I don’t kiss asses. You do it long enough and it destroys your palate.
There’s no doubt Dirty Dishes will be timely when it’s published in January — current “restaurant junkies,” as Luongo calls himself, could learn a lesson from the way the self-declared Little Bus Boy That Could ultimately overdosed by investing in a chain of ostentatious, ill-fated, Pompeii-themed restaurants that, ironically, represented everything he hated about the Italian dining scene that came before him. His downfall was clinched when the fallout from September 11 doomed his over-the-top restaurant cum marketplace, Tuscan Square.
Today Luongo has returned to his first love (cooking) at his one and only restaurant, Centrolire, on the Upper East Side. But don’t think that’s the end of it. The book’s epilogue hints that he’s planning another restaurant — one that might “lure all the younger diners, the ones who maybe have never heard of Pino Luongo.” We’ll see!