My Last Lunch at Pino Luongo’s Upper East Side Restaurant
A few weeks ago, I went up to Centolire on Madison Avenue, for a last lunch there with Pino Luongo.
I’m about the last person capable of writing an objective sentence about Pino. Not only was I briefly his publicist a lifetime ago, but we’ve written three books together and he’s been an exceptional friend to me: the year that I became a professional writer, he gifted me an office in his corporate headquarters over Le Madri so I wouldn’t have to spend all my waking hours in my cramped apartment; when he heard I was going to propose to my then-girlfriend on a trip to Italy, he arranged all of our Tuscany accommodations; and, last year, when I was rocked by a family tragedy, he was among the very few who picked up the phone and made one of those excruciating, supportive calls that nobody wants to make.
Of course, if you know anything about the New York City restaurant business, then you know that this isn’t necessarily everybody’s relationship with Pino. In an affectionate chapter in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain famously summed up that Pino was “.. . a man envied, feared, despised, emulated and admired by many who have worked for and with him” and acknowledged that much of what his fellow chefs who’d been through “Pino’s wringer” had to say about him was “undoubtedly true.”
I’ve always found those sentences especially memorable, apt, and fair: Pino has his detractors and his enemies, but he also has his fans and friends, a small and strangely silent group of journalists and chefs who will privately tell you that they admire and learned a lot from him. For my part, I’ve generally made it a policy to go by own experience with people, adopting an “innocent until proven guilty” approach. It was with that orientation that I began my working relationship with Pino, and we’ve been tight for more than a decade.
I knew that Centolire’s closing was coming, having had a window onto Pino’s feelings about what he had long considered exorbitant rent, and of his deteriorating relationship with his landlord over the past several months.
And so, there we were at lunch. We only ever sat at one table: the deuce at the top of the stairs to the second floor, from which Pino could thank diners as they left, or urgently wave over a floor manager to tend to them as they arrived. We interviewed for two of our books there and caught up over dinner regularly when we weren’t engaged in a collaboration.
It was a spectacular June afternoon, and the downstairs cafe was full. Upstairs, in the main dining room, the crowd was sparse, as it usually was at lunch. For this momentous occasion, I wanted a pasta and selected the Bolognese, robust and soul-nurturing as ever.
It wasn’t exactly a mournful meal, but Pino was clearly a man with a lot on his mind, because news of the restaurant’s imminent closing was about to break, though we had no idea how soon that would happen. Although he still runs the modest Morso, on East 59th Street, Centolire was the last in a string of grand restaurants that went back to the mid 1980s and included such juggernauts as Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Mad 61, and Sapore di Mare in East Hampton. Centolire opened at the tail end of Pino’s ill-fated takeover of the Sfuzzi restaurant chain in the late 1990s as well as his personal Everest, Tuscan Square, a combination restaurant and retail concept in Rockefeller Center that never quite found the substantial traction required for such a gargantuan enterprise.
When Centolire opened in 2001, New York Times critic William Grimes described it as “a surprise return to form by Mr. Luongo. The restaurant, in the two-level space that once belonged to Celadon, is a large, good-looking trattoria with a warm, beating heart. The food, doled out in substantial portions, is honest, well executed and deeply satisfying. Mr. Luongo is once again hitting his high C’s.”
An eternal and irrational optimist, I wanted to think that Pino, whom Il Mulino’s Fernando Masci once described to me as “a magician,” had another trick up his sleeve, a pending deal somewhere in Manhattan where he could pull off another restaurant in the Centolire vein. And so, I asked him if he’d ever open another place in New York City. The look that flashed across his face suggested I’d proposed something utterly insane.
“No,” he said. “Between the cost of doing business and the present real estate environment, I don’t think New York can give me much more.”
Then he added: “Of course, if the perfect thing came up, I’d do it.”
I asked for some bread, a scarpetta, to mop up my sauce. Pino also ordered some chunks of Parmesan cheese and a few slices of prosciutto for the table. This was our last meal together at Centolire, and he didn’t want it to end. Neither did I.
I thought about how Pino’s had his share of feuds over the years, many of them played out in the papers and, in more recently, the food blogs. He used to relish them. Years ago, over pasta and martinis at Le Madri, Pino paused and looked around the room as though straining to locate somebody.
“You know what I miss?” he’d said to me.
“There are no good, old-fashioned, restaurant-industry feuds anymore. When you and another guy go after each other in Page Six every day for a week.”
It was with those old feuds, and more recently a well-publicized war of words with Andrew Carmellini, whose Locanda Verde Pino laid into during a video interview with Josh Ozersky, in mind that I asked him whether he thought there were people who would delight in this setback.
His answer: “Oh, I’m sure a lot of people are going to take pleasure in this. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Having been in this business as long as I have, I know that everybody will experience something like this at some point. Life goes on.”
Regarding Carmellini, Pino said, “People are so sensitive. I was just offering some constructive criticism. I like Andrew. I loved A Voce.”
“But Pino,” I said, “it wasn’t constructive: You said, ‘If that’s Italian food, I’m Chinese.’ That’s mean.”
He considered this. “You know, you’re right. I regret it, and I should apologize.”
It was a classic exchange. Pino moves so fast, and has such a thirst for drama (he was an actor before coming to New York City), that he often overlooks how his words might land, or simply discounts that people might be more upset by the opinions of others than he gets.
Then there was the Feud That Might Have Been, with Joe Bastianich, who called Pino a “withering douchebag” in his recent book Restaurant Man. Pino told me during lunch that he was confused by Joe’s sentiments and “amazed” at the language. He says he has no recollection of the meeting Joe recounts in his book, though he did remember chatting with him at the bar at Coco Teatro once and, enmeshed in the Sfuzzi mess himself, advising him to not try to do two restaurants at the same time. He says he even checked with his former assistant to see if she recalled the meeting, and that she didn’t. But he had no desire to lock horns, so let it go when those bits got picked up recently.
We polished off the cheese and prosciutto. He ordered some more prosciutto. We nibbled, and he recounted some milestones in the eleven-year lifespan of Centolire. Ironically, he says, the restaurant found its loyal following in the months after the September 11 terrorist attacks because people didn’t want to leave the neighborhood. (He contrasted this with Le Madri, which he says tailed off by 50% that fall.) In 2008, when the Madoff scandal broke, diners at six or seven tables checked their cell phones, then asked for their check mid-meal and didn’t return for months, if ever. “He took a lot of my customers,” he said.
Pino was especially proud that Centolire succeeded in spite of the number of people who warned him not to open way up on 86th Street, and that nobody eats in second-floor restaurants. “We were packed during snowstorms,” he said, recalling a site he’d never enjoy again: winter nights at Centolire, when the upstairs dining room turned into a spectacular snow globe.
The prosciutto was gone. We sat there. How many meals had we shared together at that table? At least forty, maybe as many as sixty, or more. This was the last one.
“Fuck it,” he said. “You want a glass of wine?”
He ordered a glass. As he sipped it, we talked some more, about my kids and our summer plans.
He had one. We talked about Morso, where I’d recently joined him for dinner. He knew that I hadn’t loved my friends and family meal there and wanted me to see how far the kitchen had come. With Centolire about to be a thing of the past, he told me that he planned to take a more active role in the Morso kitchen, and to bring some key front- and back-of-the-house personnel with him, including Gianfranco Cherici, a gentle soul, the yin to his yang, who’s been helping Pino honcho dining rooms since Le Madri.
Finally, there were no more rituals to call on, no way to extend the lunch any further. Besides, I had to run to another appointment. Life had to go on.
We shared a bear hug, and I left the restaurant, hailed a taxi. On my way downtown, scrolling through Tweets, I came across one from Gael Greene, just 19 minutes old, mentioning that friends of hers (“spies” she called them in vintage Gael verbiage) had spotted the “For Rent” sign over the restaurant.
It was strange to read that with the taste of Bolognese still lingering on my palate. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before the story broke in a big way.
By the next day, there it was, all over the Internet.
I checked in with Pino last Thursday night, the eve of Centolire’s final service. I found him in, of all places, the kitchen at Morso. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Pino loves to cook; it’s what he often does to reconnect with himself during hard times. He sounded in surprisingly high spirits.
I phoned him yesterday, again finding him again at Morso, to ask about the last day at Centolire.
“That must have been a tough Friday,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, taking a small pause. “But now it’s Monday.”