Pino’s Luongo Journey Back

Using a fork and a knife, 49-year-old restaurateur Pino Luongo sliced his fried eggs and shaved Croatian truffles as if he was cutting a sirloin. The ochre yolks bled onto the fragrant fungi.

He took a bite of his appetizer and closed his puffy, world-weary eyes.

“This is not the best way to eat truffles,” he said in his brusque, Tuscan-accented voice. “It’s the only way.”

Dressed in a navy-blue blazer and shirt, steel-blue tie, gray slacks and brown shoes, Mr. Luongo sat in the dining room of Le Madri on West 18th Street, the only constant in the restaurant’s 13-year history. The desolate Chelsea neighborhood in which he and Barneys’ Pressman family had opened the restaurant was now a Mecca for the young and hip; their Barneys Seventh Avenue was now a Loehmann’s; and the Pressmans were a footnote to a bygone era when New York swaggered instead of walked.

And Mr. Luongo-the confident, charming, dangerously outspoken restaurateur who had built an empire by bringing simple Tuscan cuisine to New York and charging handsomely for it-had almost disappeared, too.

Like so many New Yorkers, he had gotten caught up in the giddy money grab of the 1990’s, when everyone wanted to brand themselves-go corporate, public and global-and get rich. He had spent the last five years acquiring, then closing and selling off, the bankrupt chain of Sfuzzi restaurants that, he said, his investors had seen as a ticket to a public offering and Mr. Luongo had envisioned as a platform.

That’s not the way things worked out, of course. “I had a dream, but it became a nightmare,” said Mr. Luongo, who began his career as a busboy.

He added that the experience had left him “more mellow,” but with “many scars”-though save for the Cuomo-esque bags under his Mastroianni-like eyes, the scars were not apparent as he sipped from a glass of red wine. His face was rounder and his hair-done in an expensive Caesar cut-was shorter and thinner, but Mr. Luongo’s piercing, skeptical eyes and broad pugilist’s nose left the impression that there was still some fight left in him. His posture was still regal, his suit was well-tailored, and his chic metal eyeglasses-which he’d set next to his plate-looked aerodynamically sound.

Mr. Luongo emerged from his ill-fated flirtation with “corporate America,” as he put it, with most of his original restaurants intact: Le Madri, Coco Pazzos in New York and Chicago, and Coco Pazzo Teatro in New York, though it had moved from Ian Schrager’s Paramount Hotel to the Time Hotel after his relationship with the former Studio 54 owner had soured. There was also Coco Pazzo Cafe in Chicago; Tuscan Square, which Mr. Luongo and his partners opened in Rockefeller Center in 1997; and the newest addition, Centolire, which debuted in March 2001.

Many of those restaurants had suffered because Mr. Luongo’s attention was focused elsewhere. Mr. Luongo can wax poetic about whole roasted fish, broccoli rabe, Riedel wine glasses and the old Italian song that inspired his newest restaurant, but his ordeal had taken him out of the dining rooms and kitchens of the restaurants that he loved to run and into the dull, gray existence of a desk jockey’s job. “You think that life has teached you everything,” said Mr. Luongo. “And all of a sudden … you’re removing yourself from the fundamental reason why you succeeded to begin with.”

Pino Luongo’s journey through the dark side of American business began with an idea for a restaurant. Mad. 61, which he’d opened in the basement of the Pressmans’ uptown Barneys store in September 1993, had been an immediate success, and in it, Mr. Luongo saw the future: Tuscan Square, which would offer “prepared food, takeout food, dining and retail,” a place where the whole spectrum of the Tuscan lifestyle was available for consumption. “And there was my desire,” he said, “my dream come true, to give that to America.”

His grand scheme involved opening a Tuscan Square in Manhattan and then, after it caught on, in various suburban areas.

All he needed was money. Mr. Luongo had had the financial backing of the Pressman family ever since family patriarch Fred Pressman had struck up a relationship with him at the restaurateur’s first establishment, Il Cantinori, in the Village. And beginning with Le Madri, Mr. Luongo and the New York retail family opened a number of chic restaurants, including Coco Pazzo and Mad. 61.

But for Tuscan Square, Mr. Luongo lined up Prudential Equity Investors in 1995, and it wasn’t too long after that his relationship with the Pressmans reached its end.

By mid-1995, Mr. Luongo and his new partners arranged to buy the Pressmans’ stake in Le Madri and the Coco Pazzos in New York and Chicago, as well as the land and building in which Le Madri is situated. Meanwhile, as the Pressmans replaced Mr. Luongo as the manager of Mad. 61 with one of his former chefs, Mark Strausman, Mr. Luongo was opening Coco Pazzos in the hotels of Gene Pressman’s schoolmate, Ian Schrager: the Paramount in New York, and the Mondrian in Los Angeles.

The Luongo-Pressman split was both hastened and worsened when Barneys filed for Chapter 11 on Jan. 11, 1996. Soon, lawsuits were flying in both directions over Mr. Luongo’s management of Mad. 61. Mr. Luongo said the legal skirmishes didn’t end until late 1997 or early 1998, when the case was concluded to his complete satisfaction.

During the heyday of their partnership, Mr. Luongo and Gene Pressman were often regarded as the Bobbsey Twins of cocksure, continental cool, with their loafers, Cuban cigars and hard-edged charm. But these days, even though they both live in Westchester, they aren’t hanging out anymore.

“I rarely ever see the guy,” said Mr. Pressman. “It’s cordial, but I don’t even know what he’s doing.”

“We talk,” Mr. Luongo said during lunch at Le Madri.

“Have you made peace with the Pressmans?” I asked him.

“You know, the Pressman thing never was about peace,” Mr. Luongo said as he finished his eggs and truffles. His gaze was fixed on my tie. “I think the fundamental problem was about their egos-that at one point, it requires to come back on the planet. Eventually, the bankruptcy took care of that.”

“That’s obnoxious,” said Mr. Pressman when the conversation was recounted to him. “He should say a prayer every day and thank the Lord for our family. Our family bankrolled him. Everything Pino has today is because of the family. He should not have such a short memory.”

But what’s apparently more fresh in Mr. Luongo’s memory is the end of his relationship with the Pressmans. “All of a sudden, because they were out of restaurants,” said Mr. Luongo, “they wanted me out of Mad. 61. And they did something quite nasty at the time, and put me through that awful experience. Accuse me of things that never exist. Mostly one of them. I don’t want to mention names.”

“Was it Gene?” I asked him.

“No,” Mr. Luongo replied.

“Bob Pressman?”

Ten years ago, Mr. Luongo would have taken the bait. Back then, he was known as much for his blunt, free-spoken nature-intensified, at times, by his occasionally ham-fisted command of the English language-as he was for modernizing Italian fine dining. But this time, Mr. Luongo-though he tended to see people as either for him or against him-wasn’t about to get personal. Instead, he said: “Eventually, I got my revenge … to get [Barneys] to pay all the vendors and pay everybody that they were trying to screw and make me responsible.” Then Mr. Luongo decided to answer his Motorola cell phone, which had been ringing intermittently for the last five minutes. When he returned, he declared: “So that’s water under the bridge.”

By the end of 1996, Mr. Luongo announced that, in partnership with Prudential Equity Investors, his company, Toscorp, had purchased the Sfuzzi restaurant chain out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million.

While Mr. Luongo was trying to get his Tuscan Square concept off the ground, he said that his investors-who currently go by the name Cornerstone Equity Partners-came to him to convert the Sfuzzi chain in Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta and Cleveland, among other cities, into a national version of Coco Pazzo, his pricey East 74th Street Tuscan-themed clubhouse of the famous and powerful.

Mr. Luongo said his instincts told him that the deal wasn’t right-but, he added, his partners were “looking for a way to make an I.P.O. sooner rather than later. You know what happened with the 90’s. We all got drunk, to a certain extent.”

Mr. Luongo said that the investors told him “they were going to give me all the support necessary” to move his beloved Tuscan Square concept forward. Instead, the acquisition, “from the moment we made it, was a basket of snakes,” Mr. Luongo added. “Reporting was not the correct reporting, sales were not the right sales, earnings were not the right earnings.”

Over the next 4 years, while a number of former employees, such as Campagna’s Mark Strausman, and young comers such as Babbo partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, were in the ascendancy as the new faces of Italian cuisine, Mr. Luongo closed or sold all but one of the Sfuzzi restaurants. The one he decided to keep, renamed Coco Marina, was located in the World Financial Center and never reopened after Sept. 11.

“I stopped listening to my gut instincts,” he said. “During the Sfuzzi acquisition, I was basically living on a plane. And then I end up doing the one thing that I hate the most, which was being in an office behind the desk. Honestly, man, I don’t belong there.” Mr. Luongo grimaced. “And I tried to protect, to shield what I call my babies”-by this, Mr. Luongo meant the restaurants he had when he went into the Sfuzzi deal-“from all that mess.”

And, he said, when it came time to clean up the mess, “I start to look around, and there was nobody. It was me.”

Like the auteur who takes credit for all aspects of his film, even though he didn’t act in it or write the screenplay, Mr. Luongo tends to remember his history in the restaurant business almost entirely in the first person. But no one at Cornerstone seemed willing or interested to respond to Mr. Luongo’s claims; they didn’t return The Observer ‘s phone calls.

Somehow, Mr. Luongo still managed to open Tuscan Square in Rockefeller Center in September 1997. The invitations and the party were lavish and enticing, and Mr. Luongo was unusually gracious that night, but he looked like he’d seen a ghost.

Ultimately, he was never able to fully deploy the concept. The retail shop-with its Tuscan clothing and lifestyle items-was eventually eliminated.

But at least Tuscan Square was doing business. Just a few blocks to the north and west, near Lincoln Center, Coco Opera-once a bustling Sfuzzi-had gone dark, the building in which it was located slated for demolition, its soaped windows and dirty awning a testament to Mr. Luongo’s troubles.

The Sfuzzi debacle took its toll. Mr. Luongo lost a lot of his own money in the process-“six figures” is how he put it-“but, honestly,” he added, “that was the thing that bothered me the least.” What really weighed on him, he said, was the fear “that I didn’t have it anymore.”

Mr. Luongo grew up in Tuscany, the fourth of six children of Mafalda and Antonio Luongo. His father, he said, was a doctor who worked for the Air Force.

“The value of what we call in Italy diritto del lavoro , the jurisprudence of labor, is something that I was teached when I was 16, 18, by school and by way of example from my grandfather, who was totally socialist. So I got the utmost respect for people that work.”

He learned to cook from his mother, whom he called “the strength in my life.”

“You want to learn, watch,” Mrs. Luongo told her son, and Mr. Luongo can still recount in minute detail how she would make him a supremely simple dish of fresh sardines, cooked in garlic, olive oil and some white wine, topped with chopped parsley and basil, and served with a chunk of fresh bread.

“My mother had that kind of pet peeve: get it to perfection,” Mr. Luongo said. In the early 70’s, Mr. Luongo decided to move to Rome to become an actor at the National Academy of Theater. His father wanted him to become a doctor, however, and when he learned of his son’s plans, “he freaked out,” Mr. Luongo said, and withdrew his support.

Wherever he and his colleagues traveled to perform-playing Pirandello, Ibsen, Strindberg-after hours, they would search out the area’s best restaurants. “I remember one night in the Comacchio Valley,” Mr. Luongo said. “This place, we called them and told them we were late. And all we wanted to have was one dish, and whatever they decide to put next to it was up to them. The dish was anguilla -eel-in a slightly sweetened stew of tomatoes and potatoes. To die for. The quality of the eels and the way they were prepared, it was the fruit of knowledge.”

When he was 18, Mr. Luongo registered for the Italian military as a “conscientious objector.” Nine years later-about 8 1¼2 years after he was supposed to be contacted-they called him up. He decided to fight it. His lawyer suggested that Mr. Luongo leave the country lest he end up in the brig.

He escaped to New York. Unable to speak English, Mr. Luongo began to look for a job at one of the city’s Italian restaurants. It was the end of the 70’s, and he remembered Scarlatti, Gino and Giambelli as the big Italian restaurants. But, he said, “I was shocked about the menus I saw in the windows. It was not Italian food.”

Mr. Luongo found work as a busboy at Da Silvano, the restaurant on Sixth Avenue and Houston Street that is currently enjoying a reincarnation as the downtown equivalent of Elaine’s. Soon, he was managing the restaurant and plotting to open his own place. That opportunity came in 1983, when he opened Il Cantinori on East 10th Street with two partners, Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni.

A few weeks before the restaurant opened, Mr. Luongo said that he got a call from his lawyer in Italy. “You can come back,” he was told. Mr. Luongo hung up the phone and walked to his still-under-construction restaurant on 10th Street. When he got down there, he said, “I looked at the place I built”-nowhere in Mr. Luongo’s recollection of Il Cantinori did his partners surface-“and I said, ‘That’s my life.’ And I never went back.”

Il Cantinori opened on Oct. 23, 1983. Mr. Luongo’s first restaurant was not one of those trattorias with checkered tablecloths and straw-bottomed chianti bottles with candles stuck in them. Instead, its wood-beam ceiling, stucco walls, skylighted backroom and appealing cast of hipster patrons were in keeping with Mr. Luongo’s idea that the restaurant was a stage on which he would direct the action and occasionally star in the ensuing drama.

“It was a very exciting time,” remembered Jack Weiss, who now runs Mr.

Luongo’s Chicago restaurants. “Warhol and Mapplethorpe would eat there … Leonard Bernstein. Keith Richards.”

The food also played a starring role. Il Cantinori’s menu emphasized the regional pleasures of true regional Italian cuisine, with dishes of his native Tuscany forming the core of the menu. Cold vegetable antipasti were displayed for diners on a sideboard, just like in Italy; the menu included grilled vegetables-chicory, asparagus and endive-drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, grilled quail, polenta and other dishes that have become the staples of Italian menus today.

Mr. Luongo’s timing was fortuitous. There was an explosion of new wealth in New York, and its beneficiaries were scrambling for new, authentic experiences. Revlon owner Ron Perelman, Madonna, entertainment attorney Allen Grubman, hotelier Ian Schrager and up-and-coming homemaker Martha Stewart were among those who flocked to Mr. Luongo’s restaurants, eagerly paying the stiff prices that he charged for his simple peasant food.

Mr. Luongo understood his clientele. The next restaurant, in 1988, was the seafood-oriented Sapore di Mare in Wainscott, for many a seminal restaurant of the now-burgeoning chic Hamptons culinary scene.

With each new restaurant, Mr. Luongo’s reputation as a restaurateur grew. Le Madri garnered two stars from The Times ; Coco Pazzo, which opened in 1990, won three for its Florentine steak, Tuscan fish soup and Spaghetti “AOP,” consisting of a sauce of garlic, olive oil, hot pepper and tomato.

Something else grew, too: Mr. Luongo’s reputation as, according to Mr. Weiss, “a bad boy of the restaurant business.” Perhaps because he had risen from busboy to hot restaurateur in 10 years, Mr. Luongo didn’t see the need to suck up to critics or customers who, he felt, did not understand or appreciate his work. When one patron didn’t show up for his reservation, Mr. Luongo reportedly called his home at 1 a.m. to ask him if he still wanted his table.

And in 1992, Mr. Luongo told this paper that he thought many restaurant critics “are brain-damaged.”

Mr. Luongo also had a reputation for being tough on his workers. Mark Strausman, the chef at Sapore di Mare and Coco Pazzo, tangled with Mr. Luongo shortly after informing the boss that he was opening his own restaurant. “Nobody’s doubting Pino’s brilliance. But the delivery-it’s hard,” Mr. Strausman said at the time. “After a while, it’s degrading.”

Eventually, his bad-boy behavior earned Mr. Luongo the nickname “Pino Noir.”

And while Mr. Luongo was struggling with the Sfuzzi purchase, other ex-employees carved out their own successes. Mr. Strausman opened Campagna and then replaced Mr.

Luongo at Mad. 61, renamed Fred’s. Coco Pazzo chef Cesare Casella opened his own restaurant, Beppe. Le Madri and Mad. 61 chef Ciro Verde opened Da Ciro. And that’s a short list.

“He, like anybody else who is trying to do something,” said Scott Conant, the hot Italian chef of the moment, having just received three stars from The Times for his cooking at the Tudor City restaurant L’Impero, “like anybody else who has a goal and is focused on it, is going to make a few enemies.” Mr. Conant, who worked on one of Mr. Luongo’s failed restaurants, Il Toscannacio, continued, “One thing I absolutely loved about working with Pino was that he stuck to his guns …. He didn’t give a shit what anybody said. He was going to work toward it. And he was going to surround himself with the people who were going to get there with him.”

The press’ portrayal of Mr. Luongo back in the day still clearly rankles him. “First of all, I never abused anyone in my life,” he said. “I’m demanding in my business, which is the only way you can be successful in the business. If you let them decide what they’re going to do, you’re done. You’re finished.

“When you put so many hours in your business, and you are there from 7 o’clock in the morning, and you train and you train-and then you see that they don’t even pay the mental attention to what you ask them to do.”

He put his hand to his head as if he were having a migraine. Mr. Luongo acknowledged that sometimes he had addressed his employees “in a more harsh way in situations that I was frustrated.”

He added, “Today, I’m much more mellow and addressing a different way. If I can have a little resentment, it’s just that I was never represented for what truly I am,” he said.

“But guess what? I survived.”

Pino Luongo’s voice stopped the waiter cold.

“Excuse me, what is this?” Mr. Luongo said, pointing to a bread plate topped with several foil-wrapped squares of butter that the server had just set on the table instead of the requisite olive oil.

“Butter,” the waiter said quietly.

We were having lunch at his newest restaurant, Centolire, a duplex tastefully decorated with antique farm tools and Italian food tins and, on the ground floor, black men’s dress hats.

“Did you ask for butter?” he asked me in a clipped voice that ensured the answer would be “no.”

“Don’t serve this unless customer request, because I hate it,” Mr. Luongo said. “Sorry, but we don’t serve butter here.”

It was a sign from Mr. Luongo that he wasn’t about to loosen his standards just because some reporter and his flack were watching his every move. And yet, compared to a similar scene I had witnessed in 1995, Mr. Luongo had behaved with restraint.

I asked Mr. Luongo if his experience with the Sfuzzi acquisition had humbled him at all. He looked a little flummoxed. “Um, humble me?” he said, repeating the question. “All the various things that happened from that point forward-regrets, anger, frustration, loneliness, if you want, because when you are in that kind of situation, everybody vanish-teach me a lot.

“Did that make me more humble? Yes,” Mr. Luongo said quietly, as if it was difficult to make such an admission.

“You know, I only have one liver-I can’t afford to destroy it. And at one point, I learned how not to chew myself up. If you want to enjoy the pleasure of success, you have to learn how to deal with defeat. And the most important thing is to learn how to turn your defeat into future wins by learning from it.”

He motioned to the space around him, which was filling up. “This place restored the confidence in myself that my ideas are still good,” he said. Mr.

Luongo added that he and Cornerstone are still together, but that “all of the

so-called projections, growth-everything went on the back burner.”

Mr. Luongo is still itching to make his Tuscan Square concept work, this time in the suburbs, which he says are the future of fine dining. And he’s also kicking around the idea of opening a small place bearing his name where he would be the cook and the house personality, à la Lutece’s Andre Soltner.

But mostly Mr. Luongo seems jazzed. He doesn’t seem concerned that the scene has passed him by. “Le Bernardin opened in 1985. So it’s a restaurant of the past?” he said. “I have seen so many 90’s restaurants come and go. Yeah, probably I’m in the dinosaur generation. So be it. But that I am not capable of bringing something new to the table? It’s actually wrong.”

As if on cue, the waiter began making Centolire’s Caesar salad, tableside. Mr. Luongo and his chef, Stefano Riccioletti, had figured out a way to use a fraction of the egg yolks and still get more taste out of the salad.

Mr. Luongo watched the plates of salad being distributed to his guests as if they were the only things in the room. He watched as though the food-not the words and not the numbers and not the story of his life-would be his salvation.

“Let’s eat,” he said.