Cipriani Unzipped

Giuseppe Cipriani had a suggestion. “Maybe it’s time to start writing something true about the whole story,” Mr. Cipriani, the 34-year-old scion of the family-run Cipriani restaurant empire, said angrily by phone from Italy.

Mr. Cipriani was complaining about the messy situation that has escalated since January, when Local 6 of the Hotel, Restaurant & Club Employees and Bartenders Union began picketing the Ciprianis’ numerous restaurants and catering establishments in town. Union officials allege that the restaurateurs had eliminated more than 200 union jobs at the Rainbow Room, one of the Ciprianis’ most recent acquisitions.

On the phone, Mr. Cipriani, who has led his family’s aggressive expansion in New York, did not sound like a settlement would be forthcoming. “I have to say that if I had any kind of will to settle before, after what we’ve seen-and what we’ve seen is a bunch of outlaws acting illegally-right now, I have no intention to sit down anymore. Because they are the wrong bunch.” Replied Local 6 spokesman John Turchiano: “Discriminating against union workers is in itself illegal. [So is] charging 22 percent service charge and not telling the guests that he’s not giving it to the waiters. And he’s calling us the wrong bunch?”

Both sides seem to be digging in their heels. On May 26, the Ciprianis’ Vittoria Corporation, which operates its Harry Cipriani restaurant on Fifth Avenue, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the bankruptcy filing, Victoria Corporation lists the restaurant’s 1998 gross operating revenues at $7,552,979. But the bankruptcy petition claims the restaurant’s liabilities outweigh its assets-which include a $15,000 Boston Whaler boat, which Mr. Cipriani said his company uses to shuttle out-of-town customers on a round-the-island tour of Manhattan-by more than $600,000. Still, the Chapter 11 filing drew some hoots of disbelief from the union and those in the restaurant industry, because Harry Cipriani is considered to be one of the most profitable restaurants in the city, and because the largest creditor listed in the case is the Venice, Italy-based Cipriani S.p.A., which accounts for more than $728,000 of the restaurant’s debt.

The bankruptcy has been portrayed by some as a tactic to evade paying an arbitrator’s recent decision that the Ciprianis must post a $400,000 bond, amounting to three months’ wages and benefits for the unionized Harry Cipriani staff. The bond is meant to protect the workers in case the restaurant closes without paying its obligations.

When asked about the bankruptcy, Mr. Cipriani replied, “Absolutely, it is a tactic. Chapter 11 is a legal protection against future lawsuits. That’s what we’re doing. We felt like they could have put our business in jeopardy.” Mr. Cipriani estimated that when the arbitration is complete, the restaurant “could be asked to put up another $600,000 bond.”

Yet, the Ciprianis, who have always been close to the vest when it comes to divulging aspects of their business, may find that the bankruptcy process requires them to be a little more public than they’d like about their operations. For instance, when The Transom asked Mr. Cipriani for the names of the investors and backers in the Ciprianis’ international restaurant operations, he declined to comment. When asked what he would do if he was required to reveal this information in court, he replied: “I have nothing to hide.”

Meanwhile, he charged that the union is “trying to boycott Cipriani in every possible way they can. Legal and illegal.” At one point, he alleged that the union was “blackmailing” customers, but later in the interview, Mr. Cipriani said he had used the wrong word. Asked to explain how Local 6 was illegally boycotting the family’s restaurant operations, Mr. Cipriani replied: “I don’t want to go into detail. This is all going to be part of an investigation that is going to be done.”

Local 6 certainly has been trying to dissuade customers from patronizing Cipriani establishments. Picket lines set up outside Cipriani 42nd Street have disrupted a number of events, including the recent PEN American Center’s annual gala and the premiere of Julia Roberts’ new film, Notting Hill . Meanwhile, in late May, the union began sending out letters to elected officials. Signed by Local 6′s business manager Peter Ward, the letter asked officials “to sign the attached letter and coupon, and in doing so, to make a pledge not to host or attend events at the Rainbow Room or other Cipriani facilities until the Ciprianis treat these workers fairly.”

To date, Mr. Turchiano told The Transom, the union has gotten almost 100 officials to sign the petition, including Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and State Senators Tom Duane and David Paterson.

This did not seem to bother Mr. Cipriani. “I don’t really care whether they have 93 or 500 officials against us,” he said. “The city and the state will never throw a party at Cipriani, they’re not really my customers.”

There are times when some of Mr. Cipriani’s clientele seem to be enjoying the contretemps. According to Mr. Turchiano, when Local 6 began picketing Mr. Cipriani’s Downtown restaurant on West Broadway in late May, Mr. Cipriani allegedly gave the picketers the finger, then moved the party with which he was dining to a table by the front windows of the restaurant, so that his group could watch the picketers as they ate. “It was the ultimate let-them-eat-cake scene,” said Mr. Turchiano.

Asked about that, Mr. Cipriani first replied: “This is all bullshit.” But then he said: “As you know, in the summertime, people like to eat out. Whether they have a union picketing in front of them or not.”

Mr. Cipriani claimed that of the 1,100 people that his organization employs worldwide, 920 are union members. That illustrates, he said, that he doesn’t have anything against unions, but rather, “I have something against this particular union for the way they act.”

Referring to Local 6, Mr. Cipriani said, “This is not a union, it’s a family-run business.” He pointed out that Local 6′s former head, Vito Pitta, is the father-in-law of its current chief, Mr. Ward, and that Mr. Pitta’s son, Vincent Pitta, is a partner at the law firm of Herrick, Feinstein L.L.P., which represents the union. Replied Mr. Turchiano: “Next he’s going to be accusing George W. Bush of being George Bush’s son.”

Mr. Cipriani said that hiring back the Rainbow Room workers would require getting rid of some loyal, longtime Cipriani employees, and he said he has been cheered by the way those employees have bonded together in the face of the controversy. “It wouldn’t be fair to all of these people who’ve been working for us for the last 10 years,” he said. Mr. Cipriani implied that the out-of-work Rainbow Room workers should not have a difficult time finding other work. “One thing in the United States there is not lack of right now is jobs,” said Mr. Cipriani. “We are running at a 3.25 percent unemployment rate, which is at a record low.”

Asked if he could see ever hiring back any of the picketing workers, Mr. Cipriani replied: “I don’t know. I’m not a magician. I cannot see into the future. If it’s up to me, they’re going to have a very hard time.”

No More Club Ted?

American Hotel owner Ted Conklin is a man used to putting people up for the night. So when the hotelier walked into the living room of his Sag Harbor, L.I., house around 2 A.M. on May 30 and found a man on his couch wearing only underwear and sporting a large bleeding gash on his head, he did not leap to conclusions.

Instead, Mr. Conklin woke his wife, real estate broker Tara Newman. “He said to me, ‘There’s a man downstairs in his underwear watching television,’” Ms. Newman told The Transom. “Ted was pretty sure that the guy”-whom she described as average-looking and in his late 30′s-”did not belong in the living room, but he is so polite that he wanted to make sure.” Ms. Newman explained to The Transom that the Conklin home is known among the couple’s friends as “Club Ted,” because she so frequently invites people to stay over. Moreover, earlier that evening, Mr. Conklin and Ms. Newman had had a group of friends over for dinner, including GQ writer Allison Glock, Philistines at the Hedgerow author Steven Gaines and Metropolitan Museum of Art executive vice president Ashton Hawkins. That left open the possibility that one of the invited guests’ friends might have literally crashed for the night.

Ms. Newman said that she realized her husband was not joking when she heard him talking to someone in the other room, and then heard him talking on the phone to the police. Shaking off her sleep, she ventured into the living room to confront the uninvited guest, whom, Ms. Newman recalled, was wearing briefs, not boxers. “I said, ‘Who are you,’” said Ms. Newman. “He said, ‘What do you mean, who am I?’” Later, as Mr. Conklin and Ms. Newman talked while they were waiting for the police to arrive, the man in underwear “was shushing us because, he said, he was trying to watch television,” said Ms. Newman. The couple did not press charges, so when the police arrived, the man was allowed to leave on his own. The following day, Ms. Newman said that the police told them that the man was from Connecticut and had been staying on a boat anchored at the Sag Harbor Marina. Said Ms. Newman: “We didn’t use to lock our doors. Now I guess we will.”

Four Seasons Faux Pas?

Four Seasons regulars who’ve received invitations to the restaurant’s 40th-birthday celebration have been doing a Jackie Gleason-like, googly-eyed double-take when they see who’s co-hosting the soiree on June 24. “Please join Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Graydon Carter,” reads the invitation. It is the presence of Mr. Carter, editor of Vanity Fair , which surprises. The thing is, another Condé Nast grandee, GQ editor Art Cooper, is much more associated with the place, given that he lunches there twice a week on average. He even plugged the restaurant in the foreword that he wrote to James Ellroy’s Crime Wave . Sources familiar with the event said that the Four Seasons reached out to Mr. Carter because it is hoping he will bring some Hollywood glitz to the party à la Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar-night affair.

Mr. Cooper and Mr. Carter are known for being pretty tight over at S.I. Newhouse Jr.’s publishing empire, but Mr. Cooper told The Transom, “I didn’t even know that Graydon was involved in this until I read Page Six” on June 1. (The article in the New York Post column said that Vanity Fair is planning a piece on the restaurant.)

Mr. Cooper said he was “surprised” to see Mr. Carter’s name on the invitation, given that “I thought it was an exclusively Four Seasons” event. He also noted that the last time he saw Mr. Carter at the Four Seasons was approximately a year ago, “when he and I had lunch with [Condé Nast president] Steve Florio.” Mr. Cooper added that he’s “fine” with the decision.

Mr. Carter said he had dined at the Four Seasons a number of times within the last month. “I do eat there. And I like the place,” he told The Transom. “I was very flattered that they asked me to co-host it.” Mr. Carter hastened to add, “Art was the first person on everybody’s invitation list.”

The Transom Also Hears

… The official Hamptons summer season began at approximately 9:27 P.M. on May 30 just inside the entrance of Nick & Toni’s restaurant, when television producer Robert Morton, in from Malibu, and the restaurant’s co-owner Jeff Salaway, shared a manly hug with the requisite three pats on the back. Earlier in the day, Barefoot Contessa owner Ina Garten doffed her shoes, declaring “I am the Barefoot Contessa” at the outdoor publication party for The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook book party at her East Hampton home.